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and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and
disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel
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December 7 , 2006
Return Of The Burn Monster
For some ridiculous reason involving money,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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