My turn: City dump should be top concern

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Juneau garbage dump on Class A wetlands is more than an embarrassment - it is a sin against the environment.

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Growing by the day, attracting flocks of aircraft-endangering birds, reeking of noxious odors - how can it not be our top environmental concern?

As a Juneau Assembly member, I've heard far more public testimony about the supposed toxic waste dangers of crushed rock than I have about the toxicity of leachates that may be seeping into the estuary of the Lemon Creek flats.

We can do better. We have to do better. It is our garbage that is being dumped and our community that is being affected. The dump is a problem that has long existed, but only recently been brought into sharp focus when the trash incinerator was shut down for failure to meet Environmental Protection Agency air-quality standards.

Why not just build a new incinerator or restart the old one? Unfortunately there are complications for either solution. First, who will pay for, operate and be responsible for the incinerator? Second, is an incinerator even a good idea? It turns out that modern solid waste contains materials such as plastics that form dioxins when incinerated. Dioxins are toxic and carcinogenic. There is no safe level of dioxin. Third, the burning of wool, paper, plastics, rayon and silk releases cyanide gas. Simple incineration may trade one problem (bulk waste) for another (toxic gases).

But piling up waste, as we are doing now, and letting it slowly decompose is not a viable solution. The decomposition of organic waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas. Surprisingly, methane retains 21 times the heat carbon dioxide does. In view of climate-change concerns, burning off methane from the dump may be a necessary part of an overall solution.

One solution we may consider is the use of modern gas plasma technology. This technology burns the waste at very high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment. The result is an inert product that can be more easily managed. The waste energy produced can be used to generate electricity. This is the solution Kwaan Power and Waste LLC is proposing to locate in Kake, as a regional solution for northern Southeast Alaska. This proposal would provide low-cost power for the local fish-processing facility. It would lower costs while providing local jobs.

Each waste management solution comes with costs and benefits and waste management becomes more costly as recyclables and toxic-producing materials are separated out of the waste stream. Yet it is clear, we will need to reduce, recycle and reuse to make our problem manageable.

Those of us serving on the Assembly are committed to protecting the environment and our public health. Since late 2005, we have been reviewing the dump's problems and potential solutions. As a committee of the whole, we have listened to presentations from Arrow Refuse, the Southeast Conference, city staff and Kwaan Power and Waste. In addition, the Assembly has authorized and issued a contract for a comprehensive review of all the waste management options available to Juneau and appointed a representative to the Southeast Conference Regional Solid Waste Steering Committee as a means of exploring the feasibility of joining in a regional waste management effort.

In August, the Assembly will receive a draft report from the consulting group advising us on a range of options and the feasibility of various solid-waste solutions for Juneau. Following Assembly review, the consulting group will hold public hearings in September to inform the public and receive testimony regarding the potential solutions.

The Assembly is anxious to address our solid waste problem at Lemon Creek, but no decision will be made until all of the facts, options and public testimony have been carefully considered. We sincerely hope people will become involved in addressing this urgent community issue.

• Randy Wanamaker is a Juneau resident, registered environmental assessor and Assembly member.

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