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November 29, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

December 7 , 2006

Return Of The Burn Monster

For some ridiculous reason involving money,
garbage incinerators are making a comeback

Some people admire a person who behaves as if he or she is always right. Such a person makes some people feel secure, even if that person is dead wrong. Such a person of certainty is Jack Lauber, who lives out in the suburb of Latham.

Jack Lauber
Jack Lauber

Without question, Mr. Lauber is an experienced expert on matters of toxic waste and pollution, having served some 40 years in the field. He is the former Chief of Technology Assessment for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC.) The rest of his resume is impressive, to say the least.

So you would think with all that experience he would know better than to vigorously promote garbage incinerators. Yet he wants... demands, actually.... that the City of Albany shut down the Rapp Road “Landfill” and replace it with a giant garbage burner.

Ah, how I enjoy suburbanites who know what’s best for those of us who live and pay taxes in Albany. Despite residing in the suburbs, Mr. Lauber’s attitude has earned him a small but exuberant following here in town. And his views seem to be gaining momentum.

While so far Albany City officials have not visibly shown much interest in his burning passion, that may change. After all, incinerators allegedly make money, at least for somebody. You know that our dedicated City officials will take a personal interest in the hot possibilities of enrichment sooner or later.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lauber has set his sights much higher. In last Sunday’s Hearst-owned Times Union, prominently displayed at the top of the Opinion section, was his (co-written) exhortation to Governer-elect Spitzer to commit the State to garbage burning. “Eliot Spitzer, listen up,” is the rude first sentence of the article.

The Wife knows all about Mr. Lauber’s certainty about his cause. Earlier this year Save the Pine Bush (SPB) invited him to make his case for incinerators at one of their monthly lasagna dinners at First Presbyterian Church. “We need to hear all sides of the issue of waste disposal,” she explained to me after I asked her “WTF?”

Ever since that SPB dinner Mr. Lauber has been in constant communication with The Wife. Long messages on our answering machines, lengthy emails, material sent by the post office. Basically, Mr. Lauber would be telling The Wife his latest strategies for convincing our elected officials to replace the Albany “Landfill” with a big, expensive incinerator. Apparently, she was supposed to help with the implementation.

Sometimes The Wife is too polite for her own good. She did tell me, however, that she had more than a few interesting and informative discussions with Mr. Lauber about landfill emissions and other related topics. He does know a thing or two about this stuff, after all.

Finally, after the better part of a year, she wrote and published an article in the SPB Newsletter that is critical of burn plants. Magically, the calls and emails from Mr. Lauber have ceased. Clearly, The Wife is not one of his unquestioning devoted followers.

It pains me to have to do this, but it’s time to explain the obvious. I thought the burn plant issue had been resolved and disposed of a long time ago.

But no, the line now is that the new plants are nothing like the sooty old burners. They are now safe as a baby’s butt. Technology! and Science! has made burning garbage Clean! and most importantly, Profitable! And there’s no pollution! Well, not as much as before. They say.

That’s right. And Sadaam Hussein had WMD’s. Social Security is going broke. Illegal search and seizure at the doorway of Albany City Hall is defeating Al Qaida. And no elected official in Albany is getting personally rewarded for turning Holland/Morton Avenue into a suburban commercial strip. Let’s make a list:

1) The Monster Wastes Energy. The plan is to burn garbage to produce energy. The heat from the burn is turned into electricity, which is sold on the grid. In this way, not only does the incinerator allegedly make money by accepting garbage, it produces salable power.

Never mind that if the idea is to create energy, then it’s a better idea to use something that doesn’t pollute and require fuel, like solar panels, windmills, water turbines or wave generators. We can’t talk about that.

These burn plants require a sustained high temperature to ignite, which means that they require a lot of cheap fuel to fire them. We’re talking about fossil fuel here. A lot of fossil fuel is burned to make this garbage burn. And let’s not forget about the fuel for trucks carting the waste into the monster, and carting the ash out of its fiery bowels.

With this in mind, how exactly does burning garbage reduce “ U.S. dependence on Mideast fuels” as Mr. Lauber claims?

2) The Monster Must Be Fed. These plants are not cheap. Even the least expensive of these plants cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, while “state of the art” incinerators tend toward a billion plus.

That means a lot of garbage has to be burned before anyone makes a profit. We’re facing this problem of profitability right now with the Albany City “Landfill.” If garbage can’t be found for The Dump, then property taxes will go up 20, 30, 40 per cent! Or so The Mayor and his minions repeatedly tell us.

Municipal dependence on the garbage business is mismanagement, plain and simple. Spending a fortune to shift the disposal method is fiscal idiocy.

3) Burning Creates Air Pollution. I mean, why do I have to explain this? Is this rocket science?

The prevailing line is that there are these magical devices called “scrubbers.” Yes, whenever you talk to an incinerator advocate they invoke this word. Scrubbers allegedly make the smoke that pours out of the incinerator stack clean enough to breathe.

Well, my friend Dave Camp, who is a retired DEC toxic waste inspector, told me “Scrubbers do a pretty good job.” That is, if they are kept in top condition. (See #5 below.) He explained to me that most of them work by spraying a mist of water which may or may not be treated with chemicals.

Incinerator Scrubber
Incinerator Scrubber

The resulting sludge drops into a vat, and is dried into ash. Dave tells me that this ash can be treated with agents that will sort of kind of neutralize the concentrated harmful toxic ash before it is disposed of. That’s right. Magic or not, the product of scrubbers has to be disposed of.

Scrubbers remove MOST of the pollutants, but not all of them. And one more thing. You see, when plastic and paper is burned together, you create the serious poison dioxin. (That’s why you should never burn painted wood in a camp fire.) Even if the scrubbers remove most of the dioxin, the incinerator is manufacturing new pollutants that must be dealt with.

Here’s a radical idea. Rather than fire up the burner and create pollutants that require expensive and hard to maintain technology to manage, why not just dump the garbage in a pile somewhere. Hardly the best solution, but definitely the lesser of two evils.

Now, Mr. Lauber maintains that the air emissions from a typical "landfill" are actually greater than the emissions from a "state of the art" incinerator. That may or may not be true. But note that he is comparing a dump with no emission controls to a burner with the best controls available. Let's see this level of emissions control technology applied to a dump, and then compare pollutants between the two.

4) The Ash, The Ash. The most efficient, best maintained burn plants still produce concentrated ash that represents at least 25 per cent of the original garbage that was burned. More common is one third.

So guess what, folks? We’re not going to be closing those “landfills” after all. Yes, the volume being dumped into The Dump is reduced. But look at what we’re left with. Unusable toxic ash. Unlike the raw contents of “landfills,” this ash can never be mined for recyclable materials.

Mr. Lauber claims that this ash can be turned into a kind of ceramic-like gray composite that is safe for domestic use and has a thousand possible applications. Well, maybe it's safe, as long as it doesn't degrade or shatter. But I don't think I want to work in the factory that manufactures items out of this stuff.

But let’s consider the expenditure of energy necessary to turn this ash into composite (see #1 above.) Indeed, processing and disposing of the ash will require a large expenditure of energy no matter what you do with it.

But let’s be honest here. That's not going to happen. Almost all of this highly toxic ash will be thrown raw into a dump. And while it may leach into the water table, it will never go away.

5) Management Realities. The new municipal incinerators may be operated by the City, but considering the startup costs it is more likely they will be owned and run by a corporate contractor. Either way the goal will be to make a profit.

Profit depends upon efficiency. And nothing fouls up efficiency like slowing down the operation to make sure that the health and well being of the surrounding community is scrupulously maintained.

Like any mechanical device, scrubbers work really well when they are new. Like your vacuum cleaner that doesn’t quite pull the cat hair out of the rug the way it did a year ago when it was new, these expensive and delicate scrubbers will become more inefficient as time passes. In the name of profit, there will be open resistance to rebuilding or replacing these babies when necessary.

And the toxins that the scrubbers collect will only be carefully treated if somebody is watching. Most the time the collected toxins will be tossed into the ash trucks on the way to The Dump in the Pine Bush.

As for emissions enforcement by the DEC... ha ha ha, I love a good laugh. Did you know that compliance with air emissions laws is mostly self regulating? This means that the operators of the incinerator do their own testing and file their own reports with the State. Another cost cutting program by lame duck Governor and alleged environmentalist George Pataki.

Yes, the State regulators do show up to do air quality tests, maybe once a year. Maybe. But they NEVER show up unannounced. They always give the management of the incinerator plenty of warning before they arrive.

6) The End Of Recycling. More than 15 years ago, I was told an interesting thing by environmental activist Judy Enck. (Judy is now an advisor to Governor-elect Spitzer.) “Ninety percent of our waste stream can be easily recycled with available technology,” she said. Presumably, technology has advanced since then, I’ve heard that now almost everything can be recycled.

But as we all know, there is little incentive for the garbage-industrial complex to recycle. We have too many fiercely competing “landfills” which need a steady stream of garbage to remain profitable. It’s a wonder that anything gets recycled at all.

Incinerators are even worse than landfills in this regard. Consider what burns best, not metal and glass. To get the fire in the belly of the monster hot enough to burn profitably the beast needs those forms of garbage which are easiest to reuse and sell. Burnables, like paper and plastic.

The number one international export from New York City is waste paper. Every day barges piled high with paper scrap depart for the Far East, places like Korea and Japan. Knowing the way American corporate socialism works, it is more than likely that this daily fleet of barges will be diverted into the maws of these blazing incinerator beasts.

Okay, that’s enough. I’m getting tired of explaining the obvious.

Except for one more thing that Dave Camp told me. I asked him if the scrubbers did anything to stop the emissions of carbon dioxide.

“Oh no,” Dave exclaimed. “There’s nothing you can do about the CO2. That goes right up the stack.”

Has everybody seen the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which may serve as the epitaph for our civilization? Remember that graph of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere that shot straight up exponentially into the sky? Remember what he said about the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, why they are melting?

Maybe we shouldn’t choose to add to an already critical problem, to make it worse. Maybe. Just maybe.

I hope that Mr. Lauber can admit the errors of his ways. We all need his expertise and experience to help find workable solutions to the garbage problem. It’s getting late. We don’t have time to waste on bad ideas.

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