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County Council's incinerator decision not an easy task

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It's not a good idea to throw plastic bottles in your backyard campfire. The dioxins released when plastics burn are toxic and dangerous — inhaling them is scientifically proven to give you cancer, cause neurological disorders, and disrupt the body's major systems.

According to the World Health Organization, municipal garbage incinerators are a major source of dioxins in the air, due to incomplete burning. Along with the particulate matter, mercury, lead, and arsenic that burning trash releases, dioxins are one reason that the national trend is to shut incinerators down. Since peaking in 1992 with 195 U.S. facilities, only 116 operating incinerators exist today. And that number is dropping quickly; no new incinerators have been permitted nationwide since 1995. In Detroit, site of the nation's largest incinerator, city council recommended three weeks ago not to renew the contract for their Detroit Resource Recovery Facility. If private landfills can now match the incinerator's rates, their facility is toast.

The majority of remaining incinerators, like Charleston's, are "waste-to-energy" facilities that generate electricity by burning garbage. In Charleston, plant operator Veolia, known locally as Montenay Charleston Resource Recovery, sells the electricity created to the North Carolina utility CP&L.

The incinerator, whose contract expires Jan. 1, 2010, burns between 70 and 80 percent of the county's household waste. Last January, Charleston County Council voted to discontinue its use, but reconsidered in May when the daunting task of how to handle the 230,000 tons of trash we burn each year arose. In the coming months, council will likely either have to renew a 20-year contract with Veolia or implement a dramatic waste reduction program combined with increased landfill use.

Last Tuesday, County Council held a public meeting to hear the opinions of residents in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood adjacent to the incinerator. Over 100 citizens attended, many of whom spoke about the odor, noise, and health problems they've experienced since the facility began operations in 1989.

"I put double windows in my house, and I don't (raise them up)," says Victoria Doctor, whose property borders the plant. "Every morning I wake up and hose dust off of my car. It's just terrible when you're in a place and you can't enjoy it."

Tony Levine, president of the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood council, says that between port facilities, Kinder Morgan's coal operations, and the incinerator, the south side of North Charleston has historically been an "industrial dumping ground."

"Our neighborhood is just as important as anybody else's. I'm a pretty fit guy, but I myself have dealt with (air quality related) health issues," says Levine. "This is the only incinerator left in South Carolina, and that in itself says a lot. We need to be progressive, not regressive."

Before the public comment session at last week's meeting began, county Director of Solid Waste and Recycling Gregg Varner explained the improvements Veolia would make to fulfill a new contract. Those include a ferrous metal recovery system (a magnet to remove recyclable metal scraps after burning), mercury and particulate matter reductions, and upgraded equipment to minimize noise and odor.

Varner says that he's excited the county is hiring an outside consultant firm to analyze the waste stream and evaluate how much could be diverted for recycling. His department suggested offering that contract to HDR, a firm already under contract to the county on landfill issues, so as to get the fastest analysis, but that possibility had environmentalists wondering if our waste program would remain business-as-usual. The county instead is now putting out requests for qualifications on that analysis.

Charleston County generates roughly 300,000 tons of household waste each year and spends over $40 million to handle it (not including the costs of cities and towns for residential pick-up). Even with a 50 percent reduction in trash through aggressive recycling, Council member Colleen Condon says it's unlikely that number would fall below 170,000 tons.

"That could still be enough volume for the incinerator to be a viable financial option," she says. "But we still need to make the right environmental decision."

The EPA favors waste-to-energy incinerator over landfills, in part because of worries about groundwater contamination. But the incinerator itself sends 47,000 tons of ash to the Bees Ferry landfill each year, which includes the airborne particles (mercury, lead, particulate matter, etc...) caught by the facility's pollution controls that are then mixed into the ash.

The Lowcountry chapter of the Sierra Club took a stance against the incinerator last week, calling on the county to invest money in healthier, more cost-efficient methods of waste disposal. A fact sheet published on their website details the health implications of incinerators, citing examples of other communities across the country that have made a switch.

In the 19 years since Charleston's incinerator opened, the city of Oakland, Calif., has reduced its landfill waste by 60 percent through recycling and public education. San Francisco and Los Angeles recently hit 70 and 62 percent reductions, respectively, and each has a goal of 90 percent by 2025. Oakland recently set a target of producing "zero waste."

If council had stood by their decision last January to discontinue use of the incinerator, they'd be faced in the next 18 months with how to handle the tons of trash that are currently burned.

Without aggressive recycling and waste reduction, that would mean a 193-foot mountain of trash at the Bees Ferry landfill by 2024, and the need for either the construction of a new landfill in Adams Run or negotiations with landfills in neighboring counties to haul it away, an increasingly expensive procedure due to rising diesel costs.

Charleston County owns the land the incinerator sits on, while AT&T owns the facility. The communications company purchased it as a tax credit in 1990, the benefits of which expire this year. Veolia operates the incinerator, and is in negotiations to purchase it before it commits to millions of dollars in upgrades. But to make that financially feasible, the firm would likely need a long-term commitment from the county.

"Veolia wants a 175,000-ton minimum agreement," says Council member Condon. (175,000 tons is also the annual guarantee under the current contract. Veolia declined to comment on current negotiations). "They're looking at a huge capital investment, so I don't believe they're going to be interested unless there's a long-term commitment of enough trash to justify the costs. And after hearing the public's comments, the human cost appears too great. So it's back to the drawing board."

If the county does sign a new contract, negotiations could be made with surrounding counties to burn their trash, if recycling programs in Charleston put our waste stream below the minimum. But for the residents of Chicora-Cherokee and everyone who breathes air in the Lowcountry, that could add to their troubles.

"It's easy to think of opposition to the incinerator as NIMBY-ism," says the Rev. Bill Stanfield, who lives on Spruill Avenue and heads the Metanoia community project in Chicora-Cherokee. "With air quality, the whole county is our backyard. When the incinerator burns trash, it doesn't take anything but a windy day to get those fumes to anywhere else in the county. Communities nationwide are shutting down incinerators and finding better solutions. It seems the solution that would do damage to the most folks would be to keep this incinerator open."


Do you think you can remove yourself (or at least try) from the waste stream? We're working on a 'zero waste' story. If you'd like to participate, contact for details.

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