Rush to Burn: Solving America's Garbage Crisis?by Newsday Inc.
One day in March 1987, a barge from Islip, Long Island was evicted from Morehead City, North Carolina, after trying to unload the mountains of trash on its decks. More than five months from the time it began its trip, the unwelcome barge, and it's 3,186 tons of commercial garbage, became the cornerstone of an astonishing news investigation that revealed a country… See more details below
One day in March 1987, a barge from Islip, Long Island was evicted from Morehead City, North Carolina, after trying to unload the mountains of trash on its decks. More than five months from the time it began its trip, the unwelcome barge, and it's 3,186 tons of commercial garbage, became the cornerstone of an astonishing news investigation that revealed a country unable to cope with its mounting garbage crisis.
Newsday reporters were the first to locate the barge, the Mobro 4000 as it drifted aimlessly off the shore of Long Island. They were also first to explore and explain the problems and issues that barge had come to symbolize. The results of their investigation are presented in this book. Winner of the Worth Bingham Award, the Page One Award for Crusading Journalism, and the New York State Associated Press Award for In-Depth Reporting, Rush to Burn explains the reasons why we, as a throw-away society, are suffocating in our own trash. It also explains why communities, in desperation, are turning to incineration, the riskiest form of garbage disposal yet developed.
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Rush to Burn
Solving America's Garbage Crisis?
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1989 Newsday Inc.
All rights reserved.
HIGH-STAKE RISK ON INCINERATORS
BY RICHARD C. FIRSTMAN
Across America, they rise mysteriously from the edge of town: mighty, windowless structures of concrete and steel with soaring smokestacks and furnaces that can melt a plastic soda bottle in a tenth of a second. In municipal America's war on trash, they are the strategic weapon of choice: garbage-eating, energy-producing incineration plants.
In a country that produces more garbage than any other on the planet, a nation of dwindling environmental options, they represent one of the biggest collaborations of public works and private industry in American history. Hundreds of "waste-to-energy" plants are being operated, constructed, or planned at a cost of more than $17 billion.
But a six-month investigation has found that officials are being pressured into a solution that may be a massive environmental and economic gamble, a national experiment that could mean trading one kind of pollution for another while burdening taxpayers with enormous long-term costs. The inquiry found that the nation's garbage-incineration industry has been plagued by mechanical failures that have already closed $720 million worth of incinerators and caused unscheduled shutdowns at more than half the plants now operating nationwide.
The industry is trying to recoup by selling a European technology that has virtually no operating history in this country and may not work over the long haul because of critical differences between American and European garbage.
And America is buying what the industry is selling. In the Long Island–New York City region alone, nine incinerators are due to go into operation by 1992, at a total cost of more than $2 billion.
But in many ways, the industry has not yet shown it can live up to its promise of clean, efficient waste disposal. Newsday's examination shows a consistent gap between the rhetoric of its promoters and the reality of its performance.
The industry's advocates cultivate an image of smoothly functioning machines that gobble up garbage and churn out electricity. They promise an alternative to overflowing dumps that threaten to poison water supplies.
The reality is different:
The new incinerators are expensive and often unreliable.
They are being subsidized by utility ratepayers whose garbage may never go to the plants.
They contribute to air pollution and create huge quantities of toxic ash—without eliminating the need for landfills.
They undermine such cleaner and cheaper approaches as recycling. In some cases, they make it impossible.
And while the industry promotes the technology as proven, most companies selling plants in the United States have little experience building and operating them. Four of the industry's ten leading firms have never built an incineration plant of any kind; two others have built only one each.
Incinerators play a major role in garbage disposal around the world, and most experts are convinced that they are part of the solution to America's trash problem. But, in many cases, they are being sold as the only solution. They are being built with little regard for financial consequences. And they are being opened as environmental questions remain unresolved.
With garbage piling up, city councils and town boards—forced to make crucial decisions as their landfills run out of space—are getting virtually no help from higher levels of government. Newsday's study found that, in the Reagan era of passive regulation, the federal government has neglected serious questions of pollution—questions about the toxins in the invisible fumes that fly out of incinerator smokestacks and in the gritty, gray ash that comes out the plants' back ends.
The momentum of the incineration movement alarms the industry's most vocal adversaries. "My worst fear is that it will be a colossal public health and financial disaster, a mistake perhaps unparalleled in recent decades," says Walter Hang, who leads an environmental arm of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "We will create a whole new class of toxic dumps for the ash and we will exacerbate the air quality that federal authorities have already said is a health hazard on Long Island and New York City."
The EPA's inaction has been part of a larger abdication by federal and state governments in dealing with the garbage crisis.
At a time when local governments were making crucial decisions about incinerators that would serve into the next century—for many officials, the most important decisions they would ever make in government—the EPA's solid-waste-policy staff was cut from 128 employees to one.
This failure to lead has left a vacuum that is quickly being filled by private industry: incinerator manufacturers and their allies—consultants, investment bankers, lawyers, and influential former government officials who have shared in the lucrative business of resource recovery. In the region, municipalities have paid these advisers more than $46 million.
Incinerator operators contend that, like any new technology, the industry has suffered through an inevitable period of trial and error. They dismiss the suggestion that the plants cannot work in this country.
"We're offering mature plants," says David Sussman, environmental director of Ogden Martin Systems, a large incinerator manufacturer. "It's like driving home a BMW—when you get home you know it's going to work. I've heard all these arguments: the garbage is different, the operators are different, the environment is different. But none of it is true. What you've got out there is the future."
The future comes at a time when Northeastern garbage is being trucked to the American heartland as landfills across the country close at a rate of ten a week.
So much garbage has been shipped off Long Island that, on average, a tractor-trailer carrying 40,000 pounds of trash would enter the Long Island Expressway every six and a half minutes. Garbage has been the Island's leading export by weight—surpassing ducks, clams, and potatoes.
The future was heralded in spring, 1987, when a barge full of Long Island garbage sailed the Atlantic Coast in search of a friendly port. Four states and three foreign countries refused it entry.
As the barge floated in New York Harbor, and lawyers and politicians debated its fate in court, Newsday began looking into the crisis it had come to symbolize.
Over the next six months, reporters reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, interviewed more than 500 people, toured garbage plants across the country, and surveyed operators of 227 incineration plants and environmental officials in 55 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia. What they found was a mundane municipal enterprise that had taken on a life of its own.
"We are in the midst of a garbage revolution," says David Gatton, director of policy analysis for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' resource recovery association. "For the first time, this country is realizing that garbage is coming above ground. If we don't implement solutions quickly we will definitely have a national crisis."
If it is a crisis, it is one that has been building for 50 years—the product of a disposable, over-packaged society. It is a society that has never dealt with its growing production of garbage, never embraced the idea of recycling, and now finds itself starting to suffocate in its own trash.
Two solutions have already failed. First, the early incinerators polluted the air. Then, landfills overflowed and threatened groundwater. In desperation, communities have begun shipping their garbage hundreds of miles—only to find that long-distance trucking is expensive and exports pollution as well as garbage.
As the circle closes, the country now turns to the latest answer: a solution that may create as many problems as it purports to solve.
Welcome to Garbage World.
For your plastic bag of garbage, it is a world of infinite possibilities. It may be trucked to your neighborhood landfill, to be buried perilously close to the source of your drinking water. It may be carted to Ohio or Pennsylvania in the same trailers that will return east with crates of Midwestern produce. It may be shipped to Staten Island, where the garbage mountains of Fresh Kills are growing at a rate that, by the turn of the century, will make the largest town dump in the world one of the highest points on the Eastern Seaboard. Or, your plastic bag of garbage may see the world, piled onto a barge to nowhere.
Garbage World is the municipal equivalent of the federal deficit: How long can it continue, how far can it go? Across America, nervous politicians are caught between conflicting commercial and political interests, and between converging realities: landfills posing environmental hazards as they creep closer to capacity, and a throwaway society that offers no indications that it will suddenly begin throwing away less.
In this atmosphere of crisis, a kind of municipal-industrial complex is in the midst of a mad, perhaps misguided, dash for salvation. It is called resource recovery—a euphemism that implies environmental virtue but that tends to obscure persistent questions of safety, competence, economics, and the environment itself.
A couple that for a while had their names in the news as often as film stars—the barge Mobro 4000 and its tug, the Break of Dawn.
On Long Island and in New York City, the concentration of nine plants due to open by 1992 and four others in the planning stages—nearly one for every town in Nassau and Suffolk and every borough of the city—raises questions about environmental effects.
They are the new incinerators: sleek concrete structures that could be I.M. Pei works with smokestacks. They seem logical—hundreds of tons of garbage burned every day, turned almost magically into kilowatts of energy. These new "mass-burn" plants, in which truckloads of unsorted garbage are fed into furnaces that boil water that produces steam that turns turbines that produce electricity, would seem to be the perfect solution to the puzzle of American garbology. And municipal America likes the idea: By 1992, there are expected to be more than 200 garbage-burning plants in this country.
But it is an idea advanced by an industry that often has been better at selling incinerators than at operating them. Although the technology is fallible, the operators inexperienced, and the result potentially dangerous, garbage-to-energy plants are sprouting across the American landscape like so many 7-Elevens. There are now more than 100 plants operating in the United States, with another 115 under construction or development and scores of others being discussed—a national investment, thus far, of more than $17 billion, a figure that could nearly double by the turn of the century.
It is not hard to understand why municipalities are practically lining up to buy incinerators. Nearly 3,000 municipal landfills have closed since 1982 because they were either filled or environmentally dangerous. And half the remaining 8,736 landfills are expected to run out of room by 1997. As the American way of garbage approaches a critical mass, local officials feel pressured to do something. While incinerators may represent a trade-off, it is a gamble many seem willing to take.
"In Huntington we had no more space for landfilling. Same in Islip and in Nassau County," said Huntington Supervisor John O'Neil, whose town has signed a contract for a new incineration plant. "How far into the future can we do this?"
"I think it will work," said former Babylon Supervisor Anthony Noto, who has more recently gone into the resource recovery consulting business.
In many cases, Long Island officials have come into office with few choices. Some options have been preempted by the failure of their predecessors, or by state legislative mandates to close landfills. Still, critics claim, officials are ignoring such combined approaches as scaled-down incinerators and stepped-up recycling programs.
Although it sounds straightforward, modern garbage-burning machinery—with its elaborate arrangement of electrostatic precipitators and reverse-reciprocating stoker grates and polychlorinated dibenzofuran-trapping bag-houses-is a tricky technical enterprise. It is somewhere between an old-fashioned town dump and a modern nuclear reactor. Experience is important, and in many cases it is missing.
One of America's largest garbage-burner manufacturers, Ogden Martin Systems, which is under contract to build 14 plants at a cost of $2.3 billion, had only three plants in operation by winter, 1987. None was more than 18 months old.
In a report issued in the fall of 1987, Moody's Investors Service said that European-style incineration "is not yet a 'proven' technology" in the United States, that unscheduled shutdowns for all types of plants appear to be increasing, and that "such a project clearly entails major risks."
"We're still in the infancy stage with this industry," says Edward R. Kerman, a vice president of Moody's. "There are only a handful of [mass-burn] plants nationally with any kind of operating history."
Still, cities and towns across the country are rushing to judgment. A striking example of the gamble is in the town of Hempstead, home of one of the industry's worst disasters. Seven years after the failure of its first resource recovery plant—an endlessly controversial $135 million machine that operated on and off for only 18 months before fears about pollution put it out of business—Hempstead hired an inexperienced firm to build a second plant on the same site.
The firm, American REF-FUEL, has never built or operated a resource recovery plant. It offered to build one of the nation's most expensive plants, with a price tag of $370 million. Its proposal called for Hempstead to take on risks normally assumed by the builder. But American REF-FUEL won the job—after Hempstead officials took only four days to review hundreds of pages of bid documents. The company's parent, Browning-Ferris Industries, also made a move that has become common in public-works industries: It hired a politically connected lawyer. In this case, it was Armand D'Amato, then a state assemblyman, whose brother is U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the town's supervisor when the first Hempstead plant was built.
At sunrise one day in the spring of 1987, before a thousand cheering spectators, the guts of the first Hempstead garbage plant collapsed under the force of 72 pounds of dynamite. For the next generation, only a concrete floor, a few offices, and a metal facade were left to stand.
Garbage World has always been a little strange. In 1899, when rural communities were feeding garbage to hogs, Manhattan was dumping its trash into the ocean. That year, the New York Sanitary Utilization Company opened one of the first garbage incinerators in the United States. Five years later, the incinerator was producing the electricity to light the Williamsburg Bridge.
In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court banned ocean dumping. Landfills were filling up. And incinerators were rising across the cityscapes of America. Then, as now, they were seen as the Big Solution. This is what New York Mayor Jimmy Walker had to say that year: "We have found that everybody is in favor of incinerators, but nobody desires them as neighbors. I am assured, however, that the plants will be scientifically built, and their operation will be attended neither by objectionable odor, noise, nor smoke. We have to build these plants to dispose of our refuse. We cannot kick the garbage around the city."
And so, the smokestacks went up. But by the 1970s, stricter air-quality standards were forcing them down. And back the garbage went, into big, sandy holes in the ground. This time, garbage engineers designed clay and plastic liners and called the dumps sanitary landfills.
But with a shortage of landfill space, people still felt the need to burn. During the 1970s, as oil prices were escalating, the early generation of resource recovery plants was being promoted more as energy suppliers than as garbage burners. Most of them, including the Hempstead plant, were known as refuse-derived fuel plants, a type that requires sorting of the garbage for metals and other incombustibles and produces a papery fuel that is used to create energy. But they were plagued by chronic mechanical failures, explosions, and pollution problems.
Excerpted from Rush to Burn by Newsday. Copyright © 1989 Newsday Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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