Wasteful endeavors?

2013-03-24T00:00:00Z 2013-03-25T10:56:18Z Wasteful endeavors?Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
March 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Some officials throughout the country say they have learned the grass isn't always greener when it comes to alternative methods of disposing of municipal garbage.

One Wyoming city recently scrapped a trash-to-energy proposal, choosing to expand a local landfill rather than adopt a plan that didn't make financial sense.

Two New York counties pulled out of a trash-to-electricity partnership deal in 2010 after decades of operations yielded a $60 million loss to taxpayers who had to cover shortfalls of the garbage-incineration facility.

And a Kentucky county continues to wait for a trash-to-ethanol facility after talks began more than three years ago.

The Lake County Solid Waste Management District is in a similar waiting game -- now in its fourth year -- after signing a contract with a developer to build a trash-to-ethanol facility in Schneider.

Lake County jumped in with both feet in 2008, inking a contract with Evansville-based Powers Energy of America. But since then, Powers has failed to secure financing, land or permits to build the facility. Last year, it announced it would sell its technology licenses to a local construction-firm consortium.

It remains unclear whether the estimated $300 million Lake County facility will ever be built to consolidate the county's trash processing and convert its carbon-based garbage into ethanol. The proposed process remains commercially unproven.

It also remains unclear how long the Lake County Solid Waste Management District Board will wait for results and what legal exit strategies exist for canceling the contract.

Lake County isn't the only one waiting for such a plant to come to fruition. But a county in Kentucky considering a similar plan has proceeded more cautiously.

 

Waiting game

Shortly after Lake County signed its deal with Powers Energy, Pike County, Ky., officials began talks with Powers Energy competitor, Agresti, with an eye toward building a similar facility.

Agresti proposed building a $200 million trash-to-ethanol facility, Pike County officials said.

Pike County spokesman Brandon Roberts recalls early meetings with Agresti at which officials with the Royal Bank of Canada were present, pledging future financing for the plant.

Officials from the bank also were present during Lake County solid waste district meetings in 2007, when Agresti was competing with Powers Energy for the Lake County trash processing bid.

"They had private banks with them," Roberts said of the Kentucky proposal. "But that seemed to go away when Wall Street crashed."

Powers Energy has blamed the recession and a sluggish economic recovery for its difficulty in securing financing for the Lake County project.

Roberts said Pike County remains interested in pursuing a deal with Agresti in the future. But his county also isn't feeling any pressure to act, he said. Pike County never signed a contract with Agresti, has no money tied up in the vetting process -- which was all funded by the company -- and still has a nearby landfill at its disposal.

By contrast, Lake County solid waste officials do have a trash-to-ethanol contract, and the waste district reported expenses of more than $100,000 for studying and vetting the Powers proposal.

 

Throwing in the towel

Lured by the idea of turning garbage into a commodity, at least one government agency has considered waste-to-energy facilities -- only to scrap the concept after considering various proposals.

Vicki Nemecek, assistant director of public works in Cheyenne, Wyo., said her city appraised several waste-to-energy proposals, including a plan to burn garbage to generate electricity and another to convert carbon-based trash into biodiesel.

In the case of the trash-to-electricity concept, Cheyenne decided it produces only a fraction of the trash it would take to make the plan economically viable, Nemecek said.

And in the case of the trash-to-diesel proposal?

"We could not find anyone to independently say that the process worked," Nemecek said. "No one could provide a clear plan to actually do it."

In the end, Cheyenne chose to stick with the proven method of landfilling garbage.

 

In the hole

In the early 1990s, the Warren-Washington Counties Industrial Development Agency in New York pursued an alternative trash-disposal plan aggressively, building the Hudson Falls waste-to-energy trash plant.

But the plant's construction ran longer and cost millions more than expected, according to reports in the New York-based Glen Falls Post-Star.

The plant was profitable for a first few years but began losing money. In the end, it left taxpayers of the counties more than $60 million in the hole.

In 2010, the two-county government agency pulled the plug on its involvement in the Hudson Falls plant. In 2011, the plant was sold to a private company for $4.7 million, just a fraction of its $30 million in assessed value, the Post-Star reported.

 

Guarded optimism?

In Lake County, despite its stalled trash-to-ethanol plan and the misfortunes of other government-backed waste-to-energy plans elsewhere, some solid waste officials say they retain hope in the local project.

Munster Town Councilman David Nellans, who sits on the solid waste district board, remains a proponent of trash-disposal alternatives to traditional landfills.

Munster closed its municipal landfill, and Nellans has been a supporter of the trash-to-ethanol concept since the bids of 2008.

He is not alone.

Recent attempts by solid waste district board members to kill the stalled Powers Energy contract have failed as the majority of the board still seeks the benefits the facility would create, including construction and plant jobs, reduced trash disposal rates for county residents and a portion of any revenue generated from ethanol sales.

Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub said he is determined to push for other trash-to-energy plans if the current proposal doesn't develop successfully.

But a faction of board members believes four years has been more than enough time to get this project off the ground. Its lack of any progress should be a signal to seek out other options, said Griffith Councilman Rick Ryfa, one of the dissenting waste district board members.

"It has been time -- for a year or more now -- for us to move on from this concept and look at better alternatives," Ryfa said.

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