Industrial Waste Rules Go Up in Smoke
By Eric Lipton
The inspectors arrived at the Fairfax County trash-to-energy plant unannounced one January day, ready for a routine walk-through at Virginia's largest and most modern incinerator. What they found disturbed them.
On the sprawling concrete floor where household trash is typically dumped, barrels filled with industrial waste were haphazardly stacked and resting in a pool of water. At least one was cracked and leaking.
"I felt very uncomfortable," state environmental enforcement officer Tammy R. Gumbita said. "When you have so many drums and you can't really tell what is in them, you have got to be concerned for the health and safety of the people there."
In the barrels was evidence of how the trash plant built by Fairfax County had moved into the industrial waste business, pulling in pesticides, drugs, oil-contaminated debris and other heavy-duty refuse from as far away as Iowa and Puerto Rico.
Federal, state and local governments limit what can burned in the incinerators and prohibit the burning of cancer-causing chemicals, radioactive material or caustic substances.
Yet at the Alexandria plant on Eisenhower Avenue, which had a stated policy of not burning pesticides, a nonhazardous pesticide was incinerated in September 1997, but it wasn't detected until workers complained of burning eyes and throats, according to state inspection reports. The symptoms caused the staff to recheck recent loads, and only then did they realize the pesticide had come in a shipment from Chicago.
In Fairfax this spring, barrels labeled as hazardous went undetected, causing the state to drop the incinerator's safety rating to marginal for a period. Gumbita's inspection reports at Fairfax between October 1997 and this summer cite a pattern of weaknesses in the handling of the industrial waste.
Both plants also have had occasional problems with air quality in the last four years as well, including discharges of sulfur dioxide at Fairfax's plant in Lorton and emissions from both incinerators that were not as clear or clean as the state requires.
When Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria invested $300 million of government-backed funds during the late 1980s to build the plants, they did not intend to take industrial waste from far-flung places. Indeed, Fairfax stated in its original financing documents that by this year, 97 percent of the trash would come from inside the county and the rest from the District.
But the fickle economics of the trash business undid those plans.
Several years ago, massive landfills built by private companies in central Virginia began offering trash haulers cheaper disposal rates than the incinerators charged.
Large amounts of Northern Virginia trash started heading south, away from Fairfax and Alexandria. With the trash went the disposal fees that the incinerators had banked on, a loss that threatened to push the plants into default. To fight back, the incinerators cut fees. And to make up for lost revenues, New York-based Ogden Corp., the company that operates the plants for the local governments, began scouring the nation for industrial waste to burn in Northern Virginia.
The plants get as much as $250 a ton from haulers to incinerate industrial waste, eight times the rate for disposing of household trash. The price is high because the waste producer is guaranteed that the drugs or chemicals will be destroyed so there is no chance they will end up in a black market, a risk that comes with leaving them in landfills.
"It is fairly lucrative," said Jeffrey L. Harn, environmental planning coordinator in Arlington County, which shares the cost and management of the Alexandria plant. "It helps the economic viability of the plant, and in these days, with the competitive environment, that is something to consider."
In fact, Ogden is so enthusiastic about the trade, it started a special corporate unit charged with finding clients nationwide, offering to burn their industrial waste at its plants in Fairfax, Alexandria and 13 other cities. Ogden also uses industrial waste brokers middlemen who put companies with waste in touch with incinerators looking for loads to find clients.
Montgomery County, where Ogden also operates a plant, is not part of those efforts; a county ordinance prohibits the plant from burning anything other than Montgomery-generated trash.
Yet in several communities nationwide, the revelation that a local incinerator was burning industrial wastes stirred anger during the last year. In Tulsa, the outcry was over crates that had carried napalm. In Spokane, Wash., oily debris and pesticide containers provoked protest.
Some elected officials in Fairfax and Alexandria said they are surprised to learn that their trash plants were being marketed nationwide as a place to send industrial waste.
Alexandria City Council member David G. Speck (D) said residents have a right to expect the city not to take unnecessary risks.
"We have to be able to say to the community, 'We are vigilant in protecting you from anything regarded as hazardous,'‚" he said.
Ogden officials dispute any suggestion the industrial waste business presents a hazard, saying they review each load carefully before burning it and have taken steps to address the concerns state inspectors raised.
"We provide environmentally sound, assured destruction," said George Ball-Llovera, Ogden's mid-Atlantic regional vice president for operations.
It is a message repeated in the glossy Ogden brochure, featuring color photographs of the Fairfax plant, next to shots of Ogden incinerators in New York, Florida, California and Oklahoma. "Ever consider your company's waste a liability or environmental problem?" the brochure states. "We have. And we make it our business."
The Financial Pressures
From the outside, the beige, windowless and smokestack-topped incinerators in Fairfax and Alexandria look much like routine electric power plants. What differs is their fuel.
Each day in Fairfax, an average of about 3,000 tons of waste arrives at the plant's concrete floor, known as the "tipping-room floor." Industrial waste makes up about 2 percent of the total. Waste from Fairfax accounts for 58 percent, and all of the rest comes from outside the county.
Overhead cranes lift the trash into chutes that feed four furnaces that burn round-the-clock at 1,800 degrees. The process generates enough electricity to power as many as 75,000 homes.
The county's successful recycling program pulled away some waste. But the primary shortfall came after a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated so-called flow-control laws. Those laws allowed a community to designate a specific incinerator or landfill to which trash collected inside its borders had to be taken. Once those laws were lifted, many private trash haulers chose to go to the less expensive landfills opened since 1990 in central Virginia.
The shift to central Virginia harmed both Fairfax and Alexandria, which had pledged in contracts with Ogden to feed a baseline amount of trash to the plants or pay a penalty for each ton they came up short.
Desperate to avoid penalties, Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington slashed the rates they charge big customers to try to prevent defections to landfills and to encourage repeat business. The discounts so far have helped maintain enough flow that Fairfax and Alexandria have not had to pay Ogden penalties. But the maneuver has a price: Instead of collecting as much as $45 a ton on waste collected in the county, Fairfax gets as little as $36 a ton after discounting.
The financial situation is so dire that Alexandria and Arlington this year considered shutting down their 10-year-old incinerator, an option officials rejected only after concluding they could not afford to pay off the plant's more than $50 million in outstanding debt.
"We would not build a incinerator again today," said Alexandria City Attorney Philip G. Sunderland. "It made sense back in the 1980s. Five years from now it might make sense again. But right now it is difficult for us."
Worries about the incinerator's solvency have even prompted Fairfax County to float the idea of taking over trash collection from the private sector, a suggestion that prompted one hauler to send letters to 10,000 county residents last month protesting the idea.
Recent federal air pollution regulations will force a total of $40 million in renovations at the Fairfax and Alexandria plants, adding to their burdens.
Against that backdrop, the industrial waste becomes even more attractive, with Ogden and the host governments splitting the money from it. For Fairfax government, that brought in about $1.3 million last year.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company