Carroll County officials will learn more details next month on the feasibility of building a waste-to-energy plant -- a massive trash-burning project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take five years to complete, according to county public works director J. Michael Evans.
But the county's Environmental Advisory Council has urged officials to thoroughly research other waste disposal options, such as expanding local recycling and composting efforts, before making a decision on the costly facility.
Advocates say the waste-to-energy plants are a clean-burning fuel source, which partially pays for itself by generating electricity and reduces the need for future landfill space.
But critics counter that increasing recycling efforts and promoting more biodegradable plastics could save taxpayer dollars from being wasted on an expensive incinerator, which creates burned materials that still need to be buried.
"We're not in a position to say, yes, we definitely want to go this route," the head of the environmental council, Karen L. Merkle, said of trash incineration. "There needs to be more time and research spent on some of these alternatives. Let's make sure we're making the best decision for Carroll County going into the future."
The Carroll and Frederick County commissioners are considering a joint facility to burn trash from both areas. A nearly $400,000 engineering study, commissioned by the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, is examining that option for the two counties.
A potential trash-burning facility was to be discussed yesterday at a solid waste forum at Frederick Community College, which officials from Carroll's public works department and environmental council planned to attend. But the forum was canceled due to inclement weather.
The forum should be rescheduled for May or June, according to Michael Marschner, Frederick County utilities and solid waste management director.
"A joint facility would be less expensive for all parties involved," said Robin B. Davidov, the Northeast Authority's executive director.
But critic Neil Seldman of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research group that advocates for resource conservation, said Frederick officials seem more gung-ho and are dragging their Carroll counterparts into the project.
"Carroll and Frederick are now trying to ram this thing through before there's a chance to make an independent examination of the economic and environmental impacts," Seldman said.
The last waste-to-energy facility in the country was built more than 10 years ago in Maryland. The Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility has been operating since 1995, Davidov said, but existing plants in Florida and Tulsa, Okla., have expanded since then.
The relatively inexpensive cost of burying trash, particularly in states like Virginia, has prevented more waste-to-energy plants from being built, Davidov said.
Some 90 percent of the 300,000 tons of trash Carroll produces annually is trucked to Virginia's King George Landfill south of Richmond. One truck can haul 20 tons at a time, Evans said.
But in Europe, where land is more precious, waste-to-energy facilities have been flourishing for decades, Davidov said.
She said Denmark has 30 such plants that produce steam to heat the country's homes and businesses. Another trash incinerator is being constructed in Paris, just 1.5 miles from the Eiffel Tower, she said.
The pollution created by trucks hauling Carroll's trash to Virginia is an environmental cost that officials are now re-evaluating.
"The environmental effects of all those diesel emissions is huge," Davidov said. "We try to take a holistic approach, looking at emissions from landfills, from the trucks versus the waste-to-energy facility. The methane emissions from landfills are 12 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide [from incinerators]. You've got to look at the effect of that. It's not just the price."
Trash is an unlimited resource that burns cleaner than coal, a nonrenewable source, Evans added.
The Montgomery County facility generates electricity and gets paid for selling it back to the grid. Selling power to a regional electricity cooperative helps cover the operating costs of the plant, Davidov said, adding that by next year, Montgomery will have paid off its debt service on the $300 million facility with electricity revenues.
But the public cost of such plants is unacceptable, when other solutions such as recycling and composting exist, Seldman said.
Currently, 34 percent of Carroll's waste is recycled, though that doesn't include debris from construction and demolition sites, Evans said.
Seldman said that New Jersey, on average, recycles 60 percent of its municipal solid waste, and 50 cities and counties across the nation recycle more than 50 percent of their waste.
Evans agreed that a successful recycling program would target 50 percent of a locality's waste.
"But what do you do with the other 50 percent?" he asked.
After trash is incinerated, Davidov said leftover metal is recycled. Much of that metal is from tools or car keys, items that can't be recycled at the curbside, she said.
All methods of waste disposal have their costs and benefits, said Keith Weitz of the Center for Environmental Engineering at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. Weitz was one of the speakers scheduled for the forum at Frederick Community College.
"There's a place for everything, for a mix of appropriate technologies," Weitz said. "It's hard to really take a cookie-cutter type of approach."