Getting Burned Up About Magnolia


February 20, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Let's talk trash. You have to get rid of it, right? Bury, mulch, compost, recycle, burn.

To burn it, you need an incinerator, which reduces trash to the smallest denominator. You pay for the construction, operating costs, including collection, screening, burning and maintenance, disposal of residue ash, etc. Since it costs a lot of money to run, you want to make the most efficient use of it.

So try to understand what's happening at Harford County's Magnolia incinerator, where trash is burned to create steam used to heat buildings at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground in winter.

First thing is, Harford County doesn't own it. A conglomerate in Australia does, through a series of subsidiaries. The company's U.S. lawyer is a buddy of Hillary Clinton, of the White House Clintons.

The Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, a regional quasi-governmental organization that operates municipal incinerators, authorized building the incinerator and issued the bonds to build it, and Harford pays off that debt. A private concern put in cash and and signed a contract with Harford for the county to burn its trash there and to sell the steam (when needed) to APG.

It is Harford's incinerator, except the county doesn't own it. The private owner gets the tax benefits of depreciation and income. (That's not an uncommon financial arrangement, at least in Maryland.)

The 1985 contract gives Harford the right of first refusal on the annual capacity of the plant, about 116,000 tons a year. That means the county can claim the entire capacity of the plant.

The kicker is that the price of burning that trash is a matter of periodic negotiations between county and the owner. The contract gives Harford a guaranteed price only on the first 89,000 tons annually, but the rest is subject to review and possible arbitration.

Recently, the county renegotiated terms to assure acceptance of 114,000 tons of county trash at the incinerator over the next three years at a higher average price. That agreement will cost Harford some $700,000 more each year.

There are some concerns with that new accord, passed by the county Board of Estimates. But it would seem to make sense, if Harford really needs that full capacity to dispose of its trash. The county claims it has been sending an average 115,000 tons a year to the Magnolia burner since it opened in 1988.

But wait a minute. In January, Harford solicited some 400 tons of Baltimore County trash for the Magnolia plant, and graciously disposed of the leftover ash in Harford's Scarboro municipal landfill.

Harford couldn't meet its minimum quota for the furnace that month; if the county didn't come up with some acceptable fill-in refuse, the incinerator could have accepted any old waste, officials explained.

Then there's the constant fluctuation in Harford's supply of scrap tires that are burned at Magnolia. Sometimes the county has too many of them, sometimes not enough to provide the high-energy fuel for Magnolia in winter. It's a struggle to bal

ance supply with the incinerator's cold weather appetite, resulting in occasional encouragement of out-of-county sources.

And if waste recycling efforts continue to improve, Harford should have even less trash to feed the fires of Magnolia. (Recycling has already let the incinerator accept trash more days per week than it did in 1992.)

As for disposing of the ash here, local officials say that's part of the new spirit of regional cooperation in waste management. These are the same officials who slapped a $35-a-ton disposal fee at the landfill on Harford municipal waste haulers a little more than a year ago.

So where is the cooperative advantage for Harford citizens?

Well, for one thing, Harford gets a credit of 5 percent toward state-mandated recycling goals for Magnolia's alchemy in turning waste into steam. Without it, Harford would not have met its 20 percent recycling goal last year.

Magnolia is one of only three municipal incinerators in the state. Federal and state rules have tightened on construction and operation of waste incinerators, and disposal of residue ash, so they won't be springing up all over. That is a major reason why control of capacity of the Magnolia incinerator is important.

The owners of the incinerator claim they can charge up to $200 a ton for outside clients. The $10 a ton Harford pays to burn its initial quota of winter trash is chump change in comparison. The price goes up, under the new memorandum of understanding, to $27.95 for the last tons of summer trash, but that's still cheap. Without this new three-year agreement, Harford might have ended up paying even more for that last 27,000 tons of trash each year.

The County Council, however, believes that it has the authority to approve or reject the negotiated higher prices. A hearing on the council's bill will be held March 8.

Council President Jeffrey Wilson suggests that Harford could offer to take waste from other counties for incineration, as long as Harford's needs are first met. The trade-off would be that the neighboring counties bury leftover ash in their own landfills, or dispose of things that Harford cannot, such as asbestos and household chemicals.

That's a small step toward cooperative regional waste management, but one of the first specifics in a heretofore vague pledge of principles by metro counties. And it's one that maintains Harford's control over its most important smokestack.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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