GUEST APPEARANCE: Garbage is not fuel, FLX is not a dumping ground
By Darrin Magee on December 3, 2017
On Monday at 7 p.m., the Romulus Town Planning Board will hear a presentation from Circular EnerG LLC to build a municipal waste incineration facility in the town. On the surface, turning trash to ash and cash seems appealing, especially to small towns across rural America that have seen jobs and tax revenues dry up. But there are three reasons why this is a terrible idea.
First, trash is not fuel. While this facility and others like it are billed as “waste-to-energy” facilities, the low energy content and high moisture content of garbage make it a very poor-quality fuel, so much so that facilities likes these rely on fossil fuels such as natural gas to actually do the burning. So despite any hype about this being a renewable energy facility, it is, first and foremost, a garbage burner. The western Finger Lakes area, with the three largest garbage dumps in the state (Seneca Meadows, High Acres, and Ontario County Landfill) already imports over 10,000 tons of garbage every day. Do we really want to send a signal that we want to build the economy of tomorrow on the garbage of today by inviting an additional 3,300 tons per day?
Second, supporters of this proposal will argue that WTE incinerators are proven technology in places such as Europe, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. But in those places, disposal by landfilling and incinerators is the last, most costly option. Tipping fees — the cost haulers pay to dump their garbage in landfills and incinerators — are 10 to 30 times as high in the EU and Japan as they are here, a function of more progressive garbage politics, greater attention to source reduction (i.e., producing less garbage) and recycling, and less willingness among citizens and leaders to sacrifice valuable and beautiful landscapes. Higher tipping fees at dumps and burners trickle down to individuals, businesses, and municipalities, which consequently make source reduction the first priority. Moreover, garbage producers (cities) in the EU and Japan must adhere to a proximity principle, which requires that garbage be managed as close as possible to where it is produced.
A final reason this proposal stinks is that it will undoubtedly negatively impact those critical resources that are the heart of the Finger Lakes economy, lifestyle, cultural heritage, agricultural richness, and ecological abundance so many of us treasure: the water, lakes, forests, and soils themselves. We have now witnessed three successive years of harmful algal blooms (HABs) on Seneca Lake that produce toxins immediately damaging to humans and wildlife, and which result from nutrient loading and uncharacteristically warm temperatures. Discharging warm water from an unnecessary and ill-conceived “energy” facility will almost certainly increase the likelihood of localized HABs. Do we really intend to put “Beach Closed” signs alongside the “Finger Lakes Wine Trail” signs?
The proposed facility includes 50 MW of steam turbine power generation capacity. According to the project's Part I Environmental Assessment Form, each year it would produce 949,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 8.6 tons of nitrous oxide and 20.64 tons of hazardous air pollutants, including methane (see Finger Lakes Times article Nov. 21 by David Shaw). Each day it would consume nearly half-a-million gallons of Seneca Lake water and produce 126,000 gallons of leachate (garbage juice). These are unsavory numbers at best.
Imagine instead a 150-MW solar farm (to compensate for solar's lower output) at the same location. It would produce no emissions, no noise, no hot water discharges to Seneca Lake, and no diesel emissions from trains or trucks hauling New York City's garbage to our doorstep. Yes, a solar farm would require more land, but gone would be the footprint resulting from air emissions, leachate treatment, and long-distance garbage hauling.
Equally important, saying no to a garbage burner and yes to truly renewable energy would send a message to all those who see the Finger Lakes as their dumping ground, their “away” into which they can heedlessly throw their garbage, that we have better visions for the region. We are not short on disposal capacity in western New York, and we have yet to use higher tipping fees to encourage garbage producers to produce less waste.
Please consider showing up Monday at 7 p.m. at the Romulus Fire House on Cayuga Street (the location has been moved from Willard). Yes, the Finger Lakes are open for business, but let's make it the green business of tomorrow, not the burn barrel of yesterday.