Trash Incinerators Generate Community Opposition

Photo by Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Rising from a denuded landscape not far from this area’s famed beaches, the nation’s first new commercial garbage incinerator in 20 years is about to be fired up, ready to blast up to 3,000 tons of trash a day into electricity for thousands of houses.

With landfills shunned, recycling programs stalled and the country’s record-setting trash output unyielding, new waste-to-energy plants are being eyed as a path to salvation. Facilities similar to the $670 million incinerator here, common in Europe, are under consideration in Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Americans produce 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day, the most in the world, and the talk of returning to incineration, industry experts say, is an acknowledgment of defeat in the effort to reduce output and step up recycling.

“People said 30 years ago there wouldn’t be a need to have waste-to-energy sites,” said Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, a trade association, recalling optimism over garbage reduction and vast increases in recycling. Today, few other options are available.

But while the Environmental Protection Agency has given its seal of approval by classifying the new plants as renewable energy — akin to solar and wind power — the facilities are an expensive and perhaps risky gamble.

Environmental groups oppose them, saying that although cleaner than the incinerators of the past, waste-to-energy plants still emit mercury, lead, dioxins and a variety of other toxic substances. And the history of incineration offers a cautionary tale, producing alarm among some who live nearby.

In the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore, for example, a waste-to-energy plant is being built at an expected cost of $1 billion, and concerns about its viability and health risks are mounting.

Maryland officials say that because it is privately financed, the facility is avoiding the financial risks that pushed cities including DetroitCamden, N.J., and Harrisburg, Pa., toward insolvency after they built expensive incinerators designed to generate revenue through fees for handling garbage. But while the plant received approval from Maryland and the blessings of Gov. Martin O’Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the operator, Energy Answers of Albany, has had difficulty raising the money, and the plant is at least three years away from completion, said Patrick F. Mahoney, the company’s chief executive.

The plant will be even larger than the one about to open in West Palm Beach, able to combust 4,000 tons of material per day processed from residential garbage, wood, tires and the remains of automobiles.

The problem is that Curtis Bay already hosts a 200-acre coal pier that produces black dust that collects on local streets and drifts inside windows, a fertilizer plant reeking of fresh manure, one of the nation’s largest medical waste incinerators, chemical plants, fuel depots, and an open-air composting site.

In 2009, the Curtis Bay ZIP code ranked among the top nationally for the release of toxic emissions — more than 13.6 million pounds, according to the E.P.A. And Baltimore, according to a 2013 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, had the highest emissions-related mortality rate of 5,695 American cities studied.

The M.I.T. report found that 130 of every 100,000 Baltimore residents “likely die in a given year due to long-term exposure to air pollution.”

The proposed facility would be allowed to emit up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead annually in a neighborhood with three schools and high rates of cancer and asthma.

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Donna Harrison, 51, who bought a $64,000 house in Curtis Bay with her husband in 2010, said she often saw dead birds on the street. And she spoke of a smell she described as being “like road kill all blended up and someone took the lid off.”

“We thought about selling our house, but it’s not feasible,” she said. “And now an incinerator? For the love of God. And not just an incinerator but the biggest damn incinerator in the United States. I feel I’ve taken my $64,000 and burned it.”

Other residents say they are eager for the plant to be built, in part because Energy Answers has pledged to create jobs and signed an agreement promising at least $50,000 a year to be used for job training, low-interest home loans, G.E.D. courses and new recreational facilities once the plant opens.

The agreement includes a provision that would require Energy Answers to pay a fine directly to the community if emission standards were exceeded.

Andy Dize, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, said the plant would be a clear boon to the neighborhood, given the agreement and the promised jobs. “There’s always got to be some give and take, and Curtis Bay will be worse off if this isn’t built,” he said.

The Florida plant, topped by an 80-foot smokestack, has encountered far less opposition, though there has been dissent over a plan to accept trash from outside Palm Beach County for at least eight years, until the county’s population catches up with the incinerator’s capacity.

Some residents have said the plant — and the garbage trucks going back and forth along Jog Road — could besmirch the area’s reputation and harm tourism.

“Do we really want to be the trash capital of South Florida?” asked Donald E. Gundermann, a West Palm Beach resident. He said he did not object to the incinerator, but did oppose importing garbage from outside the county.

Mark Hammond, executive director of the county’s Solid Waste Authority, said the incinerator was the best available way to dispose of waste — and a far better solution than placing a new landfill near the Everglades, which was the county’s original plan.

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“This will be the cleanest waste-to-energy plant in the United States,” Mr. Hammond said.

The need to burn trash, say supporters, is underlined in the data: Recycling rates have barely budged over the past decade — the current level for recycling and composting is about 34 percent, according to the E.P.A.

Though recycling rose steadily during the 1990s — the national recycling and composting rate jumped to 31.4 percent in 2005 from 16 percent in 1990 — curbside recycling has more recently been deemed an expensive luxury by a number of municipalities.

Thomas Kinnaman, who studies the economics of solid waste and recycling at Bucknell University, said public enthusiasm about recycling, once viewed as fashionable, had cooled. States, he said, now favor cheaper, easier options, which typically amount to either burying or burning garbage.

“Some parts of the country realized it was costlier than they’d anticipated,” he said, “and it really comes down to economies of scale. The more people who take part, the less expensive it becomes.”

Cities have adopted disparate policies, with Ocean City, Md., having recently dispensed with curbside recycling altogether. Instead, it trucks everything — including plastic, glass, paper and other recyclables — to an incinerator. The city says eliminating recycling has saved it $500,000 a year.

Indianapolis contracts with a company that charges a fee for curbside recycling, and the city incinerates most of the rest. The recycling rate is just 10 percent.

Portland, Ore., which recycles about 60 percent of its garbage, collects household garbage just twice each month, but picks up recyclables and food scraps weekly. San Francisco, which mandates both recycling and composting, says it diverts 80 percent of waste, and Seattle, which recycles about 60 percent of its garbage, voted in September to impose fines on residents who fail to compost food waste.

Baltimore and Palm Beach County each have recycling rates of about 30 percent. If, as expected, the national rates continue to lag, new incinerators will probably be part of the solution.

“We’ve been building plants around the world, so the technology is there,” said Larry A. Hiner, a manager with Babcock & Wilcox, the North Carolina-based company building the Florida plant. “I think with education the public’s perception of waste-to-energy will change. Time is on our side.”