City abandons attempts to get waste permit

Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The City and Borough of Juneau's quest in managing the city waste stream has changed and is now focused on recycling and incineration.

The city tried to either buy Arrow Refuse's certificate of public need and necessity, or get its own. City Manager Rod Swope said Monday Arrow felt the certificate was worth more than the city offered and the city wasn't willing to ante up. Instead, they received advice from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which issues the permits, that the city could apply for their own permit. However, Arrow's attorneys opposed that request, citing a state law that won't allow a municipality to compete with an existing private entity. A request for clarification from RCA confirmed Arrow's interpretation, Swope said.

The city also learned if it took over the permit, RCA would then regulate city rates for water and sewer, along with garbage.

Swope said this all came about when citizens started complaining about the odor at the landfill. Waste Management, which operates the landfill, installed methane burners to reduce odor issues. Swope said another concern is the growing size of the landfill. Previously, Waste Management used incineration to reduce the size. However, due to increasing restrictions, the company had to keep retrofitting the machine. Each time it had to do so it was a minimum of a $1 million upgrade and became too cost prohibitive.

Now, the city is focusing more on recycling. The Assembly's Committee of the Whole met Monday to discuss recycling and solid waste matters. Swope said the idea is if it's more practical and convenient for people to recycle, it will reduce the amount of garbage piling up in the landfill.

The committee met in executive session Monday to discuss requests for proposals about recycling, citing economic sensitivity.

Another issue relating to waste is the city incinerator in Thane. It's no longer operational, it's lining is paper-thin and faces major repairs or replacement needs, Swope said. To repair it, it would cost about $2 million. Replacement costs would range from $10 million to $15 million.

While repairs are still slotted for February, Swope is particularly excited about what Waste Management is doing in Oregon. Currently, large cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and places in New York use large plasma incinerators. Waste Management is finishing a prototype for a smaller version for smaller populations and it will begin testing in February. Swope said the testing will likely take 8-9 months and he hopes the company will consider bringing it to Juneau if all goes well. A plasma incinerator burns hotter than what's currently being used and is more efficient. The cost of this is currently unknown.

"We're optimistic and it's encouraging," Swope said. "We're in an interesting situation. We have, potentially, a technology that can solve a lot of our problems, but that's not yet proven. If it does pan out, it will still be 3-5 years before they could bring this technology here and get it operational."

Since the Thane incinerator is down, the city is currently dumping the sludge. Swope said the city had an offer to ship it down south for $125 a ton. Waste Management signed a six-month contract with the city to take it at the landfill for $75 a ton.

"This is not sewage," Swope said. "This is treated, processed, safe sludge. It's the same thing people are putting on farms down south. We're not putting raw sewage in our landfill. It's the best thing out there in terms of soil."

Assemblywoman Karen Crane added the material has no odor.

Assemblyman Bob Doll was concerned about the cost of dumping it versus repairing the incinerator. If Waste Management's price is continued, the city will be paying a about $37,500 a month to dump sludge.

Swope said the city currently pays $100 per ton to take it from the treatment plant to the incinerator. As far as long-term, if Waste Management's prototype does pan out and they do bring one to Juneau, the city could stand to save money since they wouldn't need to repair or staff their own incinerator.

Assemblywoman Ruth Danner asked if depositing this sludge at the landfill - especially all of it for several years - would shorten the life of the landfill.

Public Works Director Joe Buck said it would have the opposite effect. Household garbage tends to be light material. Sludge is a dense material, and will compact the trash when spread over the landfill.

"It would be considered a good material for consolidation," he said. "The volumes we produce are about 8,000 wet tons of material per year."

While the repairs for the incinerator are still slotted for February, the city will send out a request for proposal to see what kinds of options it has for long-term sludge disposal. Swope expects those results to be in after the holidays.

Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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