D.C. trash study won’t focus on incinerator, official says

March 19, 2013

This waste-to-energy plant in Dickerson, Md., handles waste from Montgomery County. (Juana Arias — For The Washington Post)

The District’s public works director has moved to ease concerns among environmentalists and one key D.C. Council member that his agency was moving quietly to build an trash incinerator inside the city limits.

William O. Howland Jr. told council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) during a Monday hearing that he would modify a contract solicitation to make it clear that a planned $300,000 study will examine all manners of waste disposal — including recycling, composting and other “green” strategies — rather than merely focus on the feasibility of a “waste-to-energy” facility.

“We have no pre-conceived conclusions that one option is better than another,” Howland said.

The vast majority of waste-to-energy plants burn the waste in order to generate the energy, and leading voices among national and local environmental activists hate the idea of building one here.

“Incinerators are bad,” said Jim Dougherty, a national Sierra Club board member, at the hearing. “It’s not the way to manage waste in the 21st century. … If we have to litigate, if we have to chain ourselves to the bulldozers, we will partner with the communities as we always do, and we will fight this one, too.”

Among the arguments against building an incinerator: For one, they pump carbon dioxide and noxious pollutants into the atmosphere, and that would almost certainly happen in one of the District’s poorer neighborhoods. (Dougherty said he believes a plant would be located in either Fort Totten, near Blue Plains or — most likely — Benning Road, the location of a Pepco plant that closed permanently last year after decades of community protests.) For another, activists are afraid that building an incinerator would obstruct the District’s stated goal of being “zero waste” by 2032. Build the incinerator, they argue, and the District would have a vested interest in continuing to generate waste instead of moving aggressively on recycling or composting.

Among the arguments in favor: Modern waste-to-energy facilities are cleaner than older incinerators and can make good business sense for taxpayers. The city currently send 225,000 tons of trash every year to an incinerator in Lorton, Va. — costing the city not only handling fees, but also massive trucking bills — so why not explore building one in the city to keep costs down?

The point of the study, Howland said, will be to evaluate the “environmental, economic and social costs and benefits” of various disposal options for the 900,000 tons of solid waste currently generated yearly in the city. “Each of these options creates emissions, each of these options costs money, and each of these options has offsetting positive benefits,” he said. “We want to understand exactly what these costs and benefits look like for the District and use that data to inform our long term management strategy.”

But Cheh pressed Howland at the hearing to only consider burning what’s left over after the city had exhausted its recycling, composting and other green disposal options. Howland said he was open to modifying the solicitation language to make it clear that incineration should be considered only as a last resort.

“To be honest, I believe waste-to-energy is going to be a stretch financially anyway,” he said. “But, yes, we can look at that. I don’t think that changes what we were trying to do in the first place. So, yes, we can include that in there.”

Cheh said Tuesday that her staff would draw up some new language to add to the solicitation for the waste-study contract and send it on to Howland for approval. “It’s really important to first get rid of waste … and then figure out what to do with the remainder,” she said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | March 19, 2013