For more than 10 years, Southeast Alaskans have barged much of their trash to the Lower 48.
That could change.
Shipment costs are up to $2 million annually for the six Southeast communities that ship their waste to eastern Washington and Oregon - Ketchikan, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Craig and Klawock.
Some officials in those cities are uneasy about the politics of shipping their trash to the Lower 48.
"Who's to say that some legislators in Olympia will decide they don't want to take our garbage? There's nothing to prevent it," said Jon Bolling, Craig city manager. Craig ships 1,100 tons south per year.
These concerns are driving a new, regionwide search for ways to reduce, recycle, treat and dispose of Southeast Alaska's trash - in Southeast.
Juneau continues to handle its own estimated 30,000 tons of annual garbage, though its antiquated incinerators shut down last summer and the Lemon Creek dump is expected to fill within 30 years.
The Southeast Conference is driving the initiative for a homegrown regional solution.
"We'd still need to ship but it wouldn't be as far," said Rollo Pool, the nonprofit regional corporation's executive director.
The conference, composed of towns, corporations and civic groups, has mulled over one idea for at least a decade: creating a regional authority to administer one or two regional dumps, with possible spin-off treatment and recycling businesses.
The Southeast Conference plans a $50,000 study that will review that option and other alternatives. Study proposals are due next Wednesday. The study would be completed next September.
"If we put together a plan and it doesn't save money, it isn't going to fly," Pool said.
Most likely, handling waste will always be expensive for Southeast's isolated communities.
Some towns, such as Craig, spend $200 per ton to ship out their waste while Anchorage spends $38 per ton to dump waste at its nearby regional dump.
Recycling rates also are abysmal throughout Alaska. The average Alaskan throws away an estimated 6 pounds of trash per day - twice the national average.
"We are so far away from recycling markets," said Ed Emswiler, an environmental specialist for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
He said the national standard for handling waste is to reduce, reuse, recycle and treat it before disposing it. He said the Southeast Conference is to be commended for trying to come up with better solutions for local waste.
Community dumps have been a nightmare for some Southeast towns and villages. A number of towns, including Sitka, began shipping trash to the Lower 48 years ago because of the myriad problems.
Pollution from what leaches out was a threat. So was the high cost of environmental compliance. Some ran out of room. Bears continue to create a "horrendous" problem, Emswiler said.
Bolling said that if the Southeast Conference selects one or two regional dumps as a preferred alternative, they would need to have road or good marine access.
Any waste site also would need to be on the electricity grid.
Pool hopes that by pulling together on a regional waste plan, Southeast towns can achieve economies of scale and, potentially, garner some new jobs in waste management.
Shipping garbage south proved too expensive for one private Haines waste hauler, which spent several hundred thousand dollars for a year and a half.
"I just could not stand spending that kind of money," said Tom Hall, vice president of Haines Sanitation.
His company's idea to incinerate Haines' garbage was shot down by residents. Now the company composts the organic material in town garbage and uses it to build a cover for the former Haines dump.
Skagway incinerates its garbage.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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