My turn: Turn city's landfill waste into energy

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Every time we drive Egan expressway through the Lemon Creek valley, we have to endure the sight and smell of the landfill. It is bad enough to experience it twice a day on the way to and from town. I cannot imagine how it is to live with it like the residents of Lemon Creek have to. Juneau must be the only capital city in the United States with a landfill in the middle of town.

Recently, Plasma Waste Recycling made a presentation to the Assembly on the use of gas plasma technology to empty our landfall by converting our solid waste into energy. According to Plasma Waste Recycling, the process would convert the waste without leaving any hazardous materials behind, allow us to reclaim the Lemon Creek wetlands, and provide Juneau with an alternative source of clean, low-cost energy. Using this technology would eliminate the sight and noxious smell of the growing mountain of trash.

Gas plasma is not a new technology - it has been used by industry worldwide for decades. Only recently has it been adapted to use for municipal wastes. Cities in Canada, England and the United States have begun using gasification to reclaim their municipal waste sites and for the energy it can provide them. Juneau can do the same.

The technology requires electricity or fuel to start, but once the temperature reaches 10,000 degrees, the plant generates more energy than it uses. The waste-to-energy conversion process forms synthesis gasses that can be converted into low-cost propane, diesel or other fuel for use in our community. Molten metals from the waste are formed into ingots that can be sold to metal recyclers. While the plasma plant is operating, surplus electricity can be generated that can be added to our power grid, providing a source of low-cost electricity to supplement our hydropower.

Medical waste and sewage sludge are fuels for a gasification plant. Currently the city has to buy diesel to burn the sludge in an incinerator while Bartlett Regional Hospital and Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to safely dispose of medical waste.

The city is hard at work to implement a curbside recycling program that will extend the life of the landfill by decades. Recycling should be part of an overall solid waste strategy. However, recycling will not rid us of the sight and smell of the landfill, nor will it reduce our carbon footprint.

Plasma Waste Recycling is willing to build the gasification plant at no cost to Juneau. Needed is a willing partnership of the local landfill operator, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. and the city to determine if this technology is right for Juneau, and if they are willing to cooperate on a long-term basis. I don't see any barrier to a partnership of this nature.

Our current landfill is being operated in full compliance with all laws and regulations; however, hazardous waste managers know that all landfill designs eventually fail. Should we assume Juneau is the exception?

• Randy Wanamaker, deputy mayor of Juneau, is a registered environmental assessor and certified professional geologist. He is registered in hazardous waste management and certified in groundwater hydrology.

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