City needs rights to trash before it can incinerate

Sewage incinerator can be kept going another 10 to 15 years

Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2009

City officials shouldn't be making decisions about expanded recycling programs, Juneau's privately owned landfill or major investments in incinerators and waste-to-energy plants until the city lawfully controls the trash stream, the city's public works director said Monday.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"In my mind, that's the most important thing," Joe Buck told the Juneau Assembly on Monday.

By the end of the year, city officials want to have a proposal in front of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to receive control of Juneau's trash stream from Arrow Refuse, a state regulated monopoly that handles trash pick-up in Juneau.

"Until then, we're talking about building an incinerator for which we cannot direct our waste stream," Buck said.

Buck was before the Assembly to report on the findings of trash consultants SCS Engineers, whom the city hired to look into the possibility of piggybacking municipal solid waste incineration with sewage sludge incineration, given the understanding that the city's sewage sludge incinerator is aging and coming due for replacement. Buck has estimated the cost of a new sewage incinerator between $15 million and $17 million.

Incineration of Juneau's trash ended in 2004 because of cost, age of the incinerators and toughening environmental rules. Amid the sight and smell of the growing landfill near Lemon Creek, locals have criticized the decision, though building a new incinerator for trash alone would drive up the cost of garbage disposal to an unsustainably high rate.

The engineers recommended pursuing a traditional waste-to-energy system that burns trash and sewage sludge at high temperatures and captures energy-rich gases as a byproduct to generate electricity. Based on a rough estimate, the consultants report that such a facility could dispose of the city's trash at about $72 per ton - 40 percent less than the per-ton cost Waste Management charges to dispose of garbage at its Lemon Creek landfill.

The engineers cautioned pursuit of the sexier, but less tested option of plasma arc gasification, a process that uses superheated gases at temperatures so extreme that matter doesn't combust, but molecularly disassembles itself, which can then be turned into fuel gases to generate electricity.

"Absent this additional operating experience, SCS believes the CBJ would be taking on a significant and unnecessary level of financial risk should they develop a (plasma) plant and it fails to perform," the consultants wrote in their memo to the city.

An incinerator or waste-to-energy system would still create landfill bound solid waste, but a greatly reduced volume, thereby extending the life of the landfill that's now estimated to be at capacity in 25 to 30 years. Before Waste Management shut down its trash incinerators in 2004, the landfill had an estimated 75 years left.

"The whole process of dealing with the waste stream is a balancing process. How much to recycle, how much to landfill, how much turn to energy," Buck said. "Not one or the other, a mix of them."

Despite the consultants cautions, Assembly members Sara Chambers and Randy Wanamaker said future feasibility studies shouldn't exclude plasma as an option.

Chambers said feeding the entire waste stream to a plasma facility is appealing, logistically and financially, and could do away with the need to recycle or go to a potentially expensive curbside recycling program.

"I don't think people are wedded to the thought of recycling, they just don't want to see it landfilled, they want to see it put to a productive use. ... This might be a solution," Chambers said.

Wanamaker took issue with the idea that their efforts are solely to keep the landfill viable longer.

"My goal is to clean up Lemon Creek, empty the landfill, restore it. Not to extend its life," he said.

When the consultants were given their task in March, city officials were under the impression that they were under the gun to replace the aging sewage sludge incinerator, built in 1992, at the Juneau-Douglas Treatment Plant after an inspection in the fall gave it three to five more years of operating life.

In the meantime, Buck sought a second opinion and had another more thorough inspection done, this time with the incinerator shut down and the inspector literally inside it. The inspector said the incinerator's life span could be stretched another 10 to 15 years for an estimated $600,000 to $700,000, Buck said.

The Assembly didn't take any formal action on the information, but asked the acting City Manager Kim Kiefer to come back to it with recommendations on resources city staff need to expedite the process with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The next step would be a true feasibility study and analysis, which would firm up estimates and provide more concrete options at a cost between $200,000 and $300,000, Buck said, though the second opinion on the incinerator gives the city some breathing room.

"That takes the pressure off of us," Buck said.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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