Incinerator ruling's hazy impact

May 04, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Local environmentalists and Anne Arundel County officials are in sharp disagreement over the possible impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires municipal incinerator operators to test the resulting ash for hazardous materials.

The environmentalists say county officials could be forced to abandon consideration of a municipal incinerator. County officials and representatives of the incinerator industry say the ruling won't change a thing.

Under the ruling, ash containing high levels of toxic materials, such as lead, cadmium or mercury must be sent to a hazardous waste dump at a cost higher than $400 a ton, about eight times the cost at a regular landfill.

"Nobody could afford to pay that," said Stephen Carr of the Severn River Association, a county environmental group.

The high court opinion, issued Monday, will have no impact on Anne Arundel's deliberations on whether it should build an incinerator or participate in a regional incinerator project, said James Pittman, a county solid waste official. The ruling "doesn't mean the ash is automatically a hazardous waste," Mr. Pittman ** said, but only means that it must be tested.

"The impact of the ruling will be minimal," said Barbara Badino, a spokeswoman for Ogden Projects Inc., the nation's largest builder and operator of waste-to-energy incinerators. Most of Ogden's facilities already test ash for hazardous materials, she said.

The 10-year Solid Waste Management plan currently before the Anne Arundel County Council calls for a decision by July 1995 whether to build an incinerator or find 500 acres for a new landfill at an estimated cost of $1 million an acre.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that incinerator ash can not automatically be considered nonhazardous waste simply because the trash that goes into the facility is not hazardous. The opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, stems from a suit brought by the Environmental Defense Fund against the city of Chicago, which operates an incinerator. It holds that municipalities can no longer routinely dump the ash in regular sanitary landfills, but must test it first.

Environmentalists had been eagerly awaiting the decision because they believe it will make incineration economically unfeasible.

"I've believed all along that the economic argument was much more compelling than the environmental argument, although I buy the environmental argument," Mr. Carr said. "I've tried to convince the environmental community that they should try to get off the birth-defect stuff and get on to the economic argument."

Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, said the ruling would make alternatives, such as recycling and composting "more attractive." It corrects an administrative action taken by the Environmental Protection Agency, which "just by fiat declared that it wasn't a hazardous material," he said. "It's loaded with toxic material. Anyone who has looked at this knows that this is true, even the EPA."

But industry officials disagree.

Ms. Badino said that ash is regularly tested at 22 of the 25 incinerators Ogden operates. "None of the ash from our waste-to-energy facilities has ever been handled as a hazardous material," she said.

Even if some portion of the ash was hazardous, there are options short of hauling it to a hazardous waste dump that could be employed, such as adding lime to the ash filtration system, she said.

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