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Public Outcry Has Cities Thinking Twice About Turning Trash Into Power

Trash incinerators appeal to municipalities looking to get rid of trash and produce renewable power. But while politicians might want them, residents have another idea.
 
 
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When a developer abruptly dropped plans for a waste-incineration plant in North Las Vegas, a few hundred residents fighting the plans saw victory – the end of a contentious, if short-lived, proposal. 

But for organizer Christie Linert it was only the beginning. The city's handling of the proposal left her concerned that her community, or others across the county, could be blindsided by similar projects in the future. Indeed, North Las Vegas is far from the first to be caught off-guard by high-tech incinerator proposals in recent years.

Short on landfill space and keen to find novel ways of generating electricity, cities nationwide have begun considering a new wave of incinerator plants designed to be cleaner and more efficient then their predecessors. Yet the technologies remain largely unproven, and many cities have been unable to navigate both public opinion and the complex issues surrounding their potential emissions and energy production. 

No definitive data

Due to a lack of definitive data, cities faced with proposals to build plants using these new technologies often take developers' claims at face value, said Monica Wilson of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance. Still, none of the more than 100 such proposals to surface nationwide in the last seven years has succeeded.

In North Las Vegas, Florida-based EnviroPower Renewable proposed building an incinerator that could generate up to 48 megawatts by burning 1,000 tons of tires and construction waste per day in an industrial area adjacent to a planned school and existing residential neighborhood.

The plan alarmed residents near the site and citywide, who organized to oppose it. But Linert became particularly concerned when city officials told about 50 community members at a March meeting that they assumed no responsibility for evaluating EnviroPower or its technology, despite the fact that the gasification plant would have been the company's first.

"The only thing our council said, and our mayor, is that it is not their job to look into the background of the company, and it's not their job to find out any information about the technology," said Linert. "It's a little scary."

'One part of the process'

Councilmember Isaac Barron, in whose district the incinerator was to be built, said in an interview that the city does not perform background checks on proposals or individuals. It evaluates all projects based on adherence to city codes and ordinances. 

"Just because someone gets an OK to continue, that doesn't mean they'll have the project come to fruition," said Barron. "They still have to meet all the EPA requirements, all the county and state requirements. We're only one part of the process." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates both new and old incineration technologies.

Barron said that North Las Vegas' passive stance and the project's derailment over residents' opposition are signs of a successful public process. "We always welcome when people get involved in the government, and this is part of it, quite frankly," he said. 

Trash to ash

The new incinerators use technologies known as gasification, plasma arc, and pyrolysis. The plants use heat to convert trash into ash and syngas in an oxygen-controlled environment. Syngas, composed mainly of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, is then burned in gas turbines to produce electricity, or converted to ethanol with the aid of a catalyst. Like older incinerators, they have the potential to release dioxins, particulates, heavy metals, and acid gases. The new plants are touted as cleaner and more energy efficient, but net energy production can be difficult to predict. 

Existing U.S. test facilities emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that react in sunlight to form smog, as well as carbon monoxide, methane and small amounts of two metals, mercury and lead, that can have neurological effects, according to an EPA report. The amount of emissions depends on the technology used and the trash burned.

 
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