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Passion, People and Politics in Frederick City

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Talking Trash

March 9, 2007

by Sally Sorbello

In the March 8th Gazette article entitled, "Crash Course in Trash", Mike Marschner, Director of Utilities and Solid Waste for Frederick County, offered a challenge. 


I'm writing to answer that challenge, amongst other things.  Mr. Marschner-- referring to the R. W. Beck report that Frederick County paid $150,000 for--said, "...I would frankly challenge anyone challenging a bias in the Beck report...I think there is no bias."


I have read the R.W. Beck report, and I not only see bias towards trash incineration, I also see a lack of information about alternatives our county has for dealing with its solid waste. There is a bias because the conclusions in the report are based on data provided by the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (NMWDA), which owns all of the "waste to energy" incineration plants located in counties that are its paid members.  The NMWDA owns the incinerators and also underwrites the bonds for hundreds of millions of dollars for counties to construct them.


In the Beck report, various alternatives to incineration arenít even mentioned.  Composting, for example, wasn't considered worthy of consideration.  Expansion of recycling was mentioned, but not enough to significantly reduce our waste stream prior to burning. 


Since the Beck report was issued, Frederick and Carroll Counties paid a combined $398,000 to HDR Engineering to explore only the Waste To Energy (WTE) incineration option. 


All this money has been spent for reports that dismiss composting and ignore comprehensive recycling. Other communities around the country are adopting these measures and eliminating the need for an incinerator. 


It is the responsibility of our director of solid waste to look to what his colleagues around the nation are doing to solve our solid waste issues safely--and without undue taxpayer expense.


Waste to energy incinerators are the most expensive and polluting option available. The trend is for green solutions.  Waste incineration--no matter how its proponents try to repackage and sell it to us--will never be green, or affordable.


The story of Frederick County's landfill has been a sad one, right from the beginning.  It was built in the 1960's on farmland taken by a farmer through eminent domain.  It was built near homes, along a narrow road, and continues to be a burden for those living nearby.


Over the years it steadily filled up with recyclables until our present situation occurred: the landfill is reaching capacity and our county now hauls 100% of our waste to Virginia and Pennsylvania landfills.


What is being proposed by Beck and the NMWDA  could be the tragic end to this sad story.  The story could end with a massive trash burner that will cost so much we will not be able to afford comprehensive recycling. 


Montgomery County currently budgets over $40 million annually to pay for its facility in Dickerson.  The revenue brought in from the sale of electricity doesn't come close to offsetting its massive costs.  Can Frederick County afford $40 million a year for just one facility, without sacrificing the budget for schools, roads and other infrastructure needs?


At the March 5th meeting on solid waste, Frederick's Commissioners asked very good questions. 


Unfortunately, they received very misleading answers.  I would like to make corrections to assertions made by Robin Davidov, Executive Director of the NMWDA:


 *Davidov: The reason there have been no new waste to energy facilities built in the U.S. in over 12 years is because the cost of landfilling and fuel were low, and the price of electricity was low so that WTE wasn't financially competitive.

Correction: There have been no new waste incinerators built in the United States for 12 years for many reasons. The combination of financial and environmental expense has kept communities worldwide fighting waste incineration. 

In DE , for example, WTE incinerators have been recently banned from being built within 3 miles of schools, hospitals and homes-- effectively banning them in the state.

As Monica Wilson of The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives has said, "Even if you could make incinerators safe, you can't make them sensible." The prohibitive cost of state-of-the-art pollution controls puts the county in a quandary of safety vs. affordability.  It's simply not sensible to invest in a process that creates harmful toxins that weren't present in the trash to begin with--and then spend enormous amounts of money trying to mitigate toxins.

Even if it's possible to remove some of the heavy metals in the ash before using it as daily landfill cover, you can't remove all toxins.  There are still dioxin, arsenic and many other harmful substances in the ash. Using it as landfill cover may sound sensible because its low permeability protects the trash underneath from water that causes leachate--BUT the cumulative effect of many batches of this ash being used this way is dangerous.  Even though a single batch may be deemed "safe", many batches combined equals many toxins that can leach into the soil and water supply.  Robin Davidov did not explain how expensive state of the art pollution controls would be.  My question is: Why create these toxins in the first place?

*Davidov: WTE is comparable in energy value to coal.


Correction: It takes 2000 pounds of garbage to equal the heat energy in 500 pounds of coal.


 Interestingly enough, I found this information on a website designed to promote WTE to our children. A local engineer with an extensive background in solid waste told me recently "WTE plants are essentially power plants that run on piss-poor fuel."
*Davidov: WTE is being used routinely in Europe.


Correction: While there may be incinerators in Europe, they are being fought by communities just as much as they are being fought in the United States.  

European citizens are alarmed by the lack of protection and due diligence offered by their government. Many activist groups are springing up--like England's "Friends of the Earth", who protest the lack of comprehensive recycling and the push towards incineration.

*Davidov: WTE complies with the Kyoto Protocol.
Correction: Waste incineration is not part of the Kyoto Protocol. 

The fact that "waste to energy" incineration leads to global warming is acknowledged in the Kyoto Protocol itself where it is listed as one of the sources of greenhouse gases.

It is true that the Kyoto Protocol mentions waste management, but what is really happening is that investors and promoters of incineration technologies are taking advantage of Article 10-c of Kyoto, which seeks to facilitate transfer or access to environmentally sound technologies pertinent to climate change. Waste combustion is a toxic activity and contributor to global warming.

A safer and less expensive waste to energy technology is anaerobic digestion--but conserving energy through recycling and composting is still considered the Best Available Control Technology.

*Davidov: WTE is classed a renewable energy.


Correction: Waste incineration is not a renewable energy...unless you want to encourage waste production and destroy recyclable materials. 

 Renewable energy is defined as a project activity that uses partly or in its entirety sources of energy that do not use up the earth's finite resources and that is replaced rapidly by the natural processes. The incineration/gasification processes are resource depleting initiatives, and cannot in truth be termed renewable.

Burning trash depletes resources because recyclables are burned (I learned that recyclable materials are burned during my tour of the Montgomery County Covanta facility. 100,000's of tons of recyclables are burned because they are not separated out once they reach the facility). Burning useful resources in the trash means that much more pollution and depletion of the environment occurs in the manufacturing of products from virgin, rather than recycled, materials.

 Recycling conserves more energy than incinerators produce. Recycling experts call waste to energy "wasted energy" because more than one energy analysis has shown that the energy that could be saved through waste reduction and materials recovery far outweighs the energy generated by these garbage burners.

*Davidov: Greenpeace endorses WTE, as voiced by Patrick Moore, its co-founder.


Correction: Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, is no longer with Greenpeace. 

His current support of waste incineration--as mentioned at the meeting --is no longer representative of Greenpeace. Patrick Moore is being called an "eco-traitor" because of his 180 degree shift on this and other environmental issues.

*Davidov: The revenue earned back from the sale of WTE electricity is good business.


Correction: The sale of electricity does not make WTE affordable.  The revenue from electricity sold doesn't make a dent in its enormous costs to build and operate.
* Davidov: WTE is compatible with recycling.


Correction: They directly compete with each other. 

Incineration, perhaps more than landfilling, competes with source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting. Most incinerators require put-or-pay contracts stipulating that local governments deliver a guaranteed tonnage of material to the incinerator or pay a penalty. These contracts are a major disincentive to maximizing waste reduction, and thus an obstacle to recycling planning and strategies.

With landfilling, if you reduce waste, you extend the life of your landfill. With incineration, you still have to pay.

*Davidov: The people running the facility would know what they're doing.  The county's solid waste managers would not be running the facility.


Correction: Covanta Energy, one of the possible WTE companies we choose, filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

 They were bailed out in 2004, but is it wise to invest hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in a company with recent financial distress?  Also, if the county isn't running the facility, how will there be oversight of the facility?  Should we just blindly trust a recently bankrupt company to "know what they're doing?

Commissioner Hagen asked Mr. Marschner if other consultants should be considered to re-evaluate our solid waste alternatives. 

Marschner responded: "That's not something government does. R.W. Beck is a professional consultant.  They do a fair amount of work nationally..."

My response to that is government makes a mistake in not performing due diligence--and it costs taxpayers dearly.  We absolutely need to contact consultants who make it their priority to maximize recycling and put our county on the right track  

We should only burn trash as a last resort, after maximum diversion has been accomplished.

Please contact our Frederick Board of County Commissioners and tell them you want a second opinion from a less expensive, independent, green minded consultant.

We could live up to David Gray's ideal of being the "showpiece of environmental protection in the state" if we get advice from the right sources.