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A burning issue

Garbage burners play a significant role in a few Ninth District states. For years, local governments have stoked the fire, but the flame appears to be dying.

March 1, 2005


Douglas Clement Editor, The Region

It was the perfect dream, a simple solution to two thorny problems. So in the 1980s, far-sighted city and county governments across the country invested millions of taxpayer dollars in trash incinerators. The burners promised to consume vast quantities of ever-mounting solid waste and generate equally vast quantities of electricity or steam. Garbage incinerators, it seemed, would perform municipal alchemy, turning trash into treasure.

But the legal and economic realities of solid waste shifted in a matter of years, and the dream quickly dissolved. Today, incineration is a legacy technology and a financial burden on the municipalities that bought into it. Surprisingly, though, a number of local governments and businesses in the Ninth District are trying to keep hope alive with schemes to build new incinerators that will fire kilns, generate power and dissolve those still-mounting piles of garbage. Many of these new plans face public protest and skepticism, but that may be the least of their obstacles.

Up in smoke

There were 107 garbage incinerators in the United States in 2002, according to BioCycle magazine, down from 171 in 1991. Industry surveys suggest the total dropped still further last year, to just 89 dedicated waste-to-energy facilities in 2004. (Most incinerators are designed to generate power—thus the term "waste-to-energy"—but a few, older burners simply burn garbage without harnessing energy.) While most of these are in New England or in the South, Minnesota is home to six burners, Wisconsin has several and Montana has one municipal burner. Some burn raw garbage; others rely on "refuse-derived fuel," or RDF—garbage processed into what Xcel Energy describes as "fluffy, burnable" material.

Minnesota's Hennepin County generates about a million tons of garbage in a year, according to Carl Michaud, manager of the county's solid waste division. The county devotes 365,000 tons of that to a burner built in the 1980s for $129 million at the edge of downtown Minneapolis. Another 235,000 tons is processed into RDF that is burned at power plants in Elk River, Mankato and Red Wing, Minn. Trash from other nearby counties is also processed into RDF for those plants.

A similar arrangement exists east of the Twin Cities, where Ramsey and Washington counties have their trash turned into RDF, which fuels Xcel Energy burners in Mankato and Red Wing. Xcel also owns and operates a garbage burner in La Crosse, Wis., on the Mississippi River.

Feed me!

The problem is that incinerators are voracious. To operate at peak efficiency, they need to be fed constantly and run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When the plants were first built, this wasn't a problem. Counties had legal responsibility for disposing of their garbage and so could designate where that garbage would go. In a system called "flow control," they told trash haulers to feed the incinerators and to pay the tipping fees of around $90 a ton.

But in 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that flow control was unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce. Haulers, it ruled, should be allowed to bring their trash wherever they wanted.

Soon, municipal garbage burners were starving for trash. Tipping fees at landfills were far cheaper than at incinerators, so trash haulers headed to the dump. Since counties had entered into long-term contracts to supply predetermined quantities of trash to incinerators and to plants that turn trash into RDF, they were under tremendous pressure to find garbage. It was a matter of either lowering tipping fees to draw more garbage or paying huge contract penalties.

"We reduced our fee to what we thought was a competitive rate at the time," said Michaud. "That was basically from $95 a ton down to $60 a ton. That worked fine for a few years." But as landfills expanded—contrary to expectations in the late '80s—and trash haulers consolidated, "we dropped the fee even more."

To stay competitive, municipal incinerators more than halved their per ton tipping fees to around $40. But since the original fee was set to cover operating costs, the burners began to bleed cash, especially as plant operators discovered that the maintenance costs were unexpectedly high. At the Elk River facility, for instance, chlorine from the paper and PVC plastics in garbage turns into hydrochloric acid which constantly erodes steel tubing, leading to annual boiler maintenance fees as high as $3 million, half of total operating costs.

Moreover, energy markets also evolved in ways that diminished the apparent fuel-source benefit of garbage burners. Natural gas prices dropped and power companies shifted to that low-cost fuel. Newer coal-burning power plants were also more technically efficient than incinerators. Garbage burners, as it turned out, didn't have the expected advantage in generating revenue from energy sales. And with their unexpectedly high operating costs, they ended up being as hungry for subsidies as they were for garbage.

Bleed me

Taxpayers, of course, are paying the bills. Hennepin County has paid the Elk River facility additional service payments and subsidies that have escalated from $19 million in 1997 to $23 million in 2003. (The county also paid $3.5 million in 1998 to waste haulers and landfill owners to settle a lawsuit challenging county flow control.) Similarly, when waste management corporation BFI diverted much of its trash away from the Newport, Minn., RDF processor in 2001, county officials estimated that they would have to pay $10 million in subsidies and penalties to keep the plant running.

La Crosse County officials also scramble to provide enough garbage for Xcel's French Island incinerator. In 2002, the county extended its contract with Xcel through 2023 and agreed to come up with $10.9 million for new pollution control equipment for the plant, which had been out of compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. But the contract extension meant coming up with 73,000 tons of trash to keep the burner going, while possibly increasing tipping fees to pay for the improvements. Local trash haulers and some neighboring counties have resisted La Crosse's insistence that they bring waste to the high-cost facility.

A more positive scenario has played out at the Barron County, Wis., waste-to-energy plant. Built in 1986 for $6 million, the plant negotiated a long-term contract with a cheese plant across the street that uses steam from the burner to cook down milk and process cheese. Local and out-of-county trash haulers have supplied a steady stream of garbage, allowing the burner to run at its 80-ton-per-day capacity. The tipping fees plus the cheese factory payments have covered operating and maintenance costs since startup, according to plant operators.

In Fergus Falls, Minn., which also has a "dedicated" garbage burner, the situation is bleaker. The incinerator there burns trash from seven different counties, and the state pays Fergus Falls about $800,000 a year to provide steam from the burner to heat a state treatment center there. But the center is planning to move to a smaller building that won't need the steam, and the incinerator can't afford to keep running on what it makes from tipping fees. The incinerator is destined to shut down—it's a matter of when, not if—and the counties are trying to decide where else to bring their trash.

Very optimistic

Despite these difficulties, there are at least two new incinerators on the drawing board in outstate Minnesota. Redwood County officials have developed a plan for a waste-to-energy project for Lamberton, Minn. The $41 million facility would process 350 tons of waste per day from the surrounding 17-county area into 249 tons per day of RDF that would be burned to generate electricity. An engineering consultant's review of the feasibility study was less than glowing: Technical performance projections were "inconsistent with industry standards," and revenue estimates were "very optimistic." The study, concluded the consultant, "does not as yet rise to the level of a defensible document."

Meanwhile, the Tri-County Solid Waste Commission of Sterns, Benton and Sherburne counties recommended in December that those counties buy about 15 acres on the edge of St. Cloud with an eye toward building a $75 million incinerator. That burner, which could be operational by the end of 2009, would take in 500 tons of garbage a day and provide steam for a nearby wastewater treatment plant and industrial park. Not everyone is entirely convinced. "Seventy-five million by anybody's standards is an awful lot of dollars," commission member Larry Haws told the St. Cloud Times. "People have to be concerned that this is in [our] best interests."

Montana's only municipal garbage burner is Livingston, and its days may be numbered. It was built in 1981 to provide steam for the Burlington Northern Railroad, but when the railroad company left town five years later, the burner lost its only customer. To meet current emissions regulations, the facility requires costly retrofitting by the end of 2005. Local officials are "evaluating the available options," according to a recent state report. "The future of Park County's incinerator is an uncertain one."

That prognosis might well apply to most district incinerators, born in an age of tight municipal control over waste flow. With freer trash markets and expanding landfills, garbage burners have become white elephants—hemmed in by long-term contracts, strained by expensive technology and bailed out by taxpayers. As the contracts expire, as most will later this decade, the day of reckoning will arrive. Until then, "we're kind of stuck with these agreements," said Hennepin County's Michaud. "If we backed out, we'd still wind up paying, so let's just continue on."