When Westchester County, N.Y., decided to build an incinerator in the late 1970s, seven towns opted not to join the county's waste disposal program.
Now, years later, one of the towns, New Castle, has asked the county legislature's for permission to bring its garbage to the incinerator, a refuse-fired power plant that opened in 1984. The one-year deal would allow New Castle to burn its trash for a tipping fee. The county is reviewing the town's request.
What the county now knows, and counties all across the nation either know or are finding out, is that garbage is one issue that just won't stay buried.
"The days of the old town dump are gone," said Robert Vrana, deputy commissioner of the department of environmental facilities for Westchester County.
In New Castle's case, the town could take its garbage to the incinerator as long as the plant has excess capacity. New Castle would not, however, enjoy full rights to the plant because, like the other six towns, it did not share in the full costs of building it.
Instead, those seven towns now either maintain their own municipal garbage collection and disposal systems, or home owners there contract directly with private carters.
The seven, primarily affluent, Northern Westchester towns decided not to enter the garbage district that originally built the plant because of the increase in ad valorem taxes that would have been required. Home owners in those towns tend to own large properties and they felt they would have to unfairly shoulder a large portion of the plant's costs.
Offer Still Open
The offer to join the incinerator plant is still open, Vrana said, but if any of the towns decide to join, they must make up for their share of the plant's overall costs in order to fully participate.
Aside from the Peekskill-located incinerator, which burned 650,000 tons of trash last year, Westchester has added recycling and composting to its waste disposal program, Vrana said.
He noted that the county currently recycles approximately 25% of its waste. Under its 1988 Waste Management Act, New York State established a recycling goal of 40% by 1997.
"It's pretty optimistic," Vrana said, observing that as the goal is neared, each percentage point becomes tougher to achieve.
County executive Andrew O'Rourke said that as the county gets further into its recycling plan, the incinerator has the capacity to become more regional in scope. O'Rourke said would first look to bring in the Westchester towns still outside the garbage district, then the county's private carters, and then other interests.
Another small though important part of Westchester County's waste management is its composting program, Vrana said. A few years also. the county bought yard refuse composting equipment, which keeps such refuse from ending up in the incinerator. The purchase has saved each participating municipality from having to purchase its own composting equipment.
Dr. Paul Connett, coeditor of a weekly newsletter called Waste Not, commends Westchester County on its recycling efforts. But he strongly opposes its incinerator.
"I think they made a huge mistake when they built their incinerator," said Connett, who is an assistant professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
The trouble is that while municipalities puzzle over how to make waste, they're asking themselves the wrong question, Connett said. "The right question is, ~How do we unmake waste?' " he said.
But Vrana argued that no absolutely safe method of waste disposal exists. The county has dealt well with a difficult problem, he said, noting that its incinerator complies with all federal and state standards.
Of Connett's criticism, O'Rourke said, "It's always good 12 years later to say what should have been done."
O'Rourke said the county's plant was a state-of-the-art facility when it was built and still is. And if something better comes along later, the county would be willing to investigate it, he said.
Connett, who began his crusade while battling an incinerator near his upstate home, has given more than 900 presentations on solid waste disposal in 46 states and in 21 countries.
"For the last 10 years, the battle has been stopping incinerators, and I think that battle has largely been won," Connett said.
In what Connett calls a conservative estimate, more than 140 trash incineration projects have been stopped in the United States since 1985. For example, he said, New Jersey wants 22 incinerators but will probably get only six in addition to the current total of four.
Since 1985, California has sought 35 incinerators and gotten three, Connett said. And outright bans on incinerators have been put in place in Ontario. Rhode Island, and West Virginia.
In 1986, O'Rourke shut Westchester County's Croton Point landfill following concerns that the landfill was leaching into the Hudson River.
While the seven towns turned to other avenues to dispose of their waste, the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency in 1982 issued bonds to build the incinerator, called a mass burn resource recovery facility or a waste-to-energy plant.
The 1982 debt consisted of $157 million of serial and term bonds, with the term bonds maturing in 2005.
The refuse-fired plant generates electricity that is sold to a local utility, Consolidated Edison, to offset the plant's construction costs plus operation and maintenance costs, Vrana said.
In 1982, predictions called for sharp increases in energy costs. While those predictions have unfortunately fallen short, Vrana said, the waste-to-energy program is still beneficial because of the revenue it generates.
As for recycling, Westchester opened its material recovery facility in Yonkers last September, Vrana said. The facility accepts recyclables from 35 of the 36 Westchester municipalities in the garbage district. The other municipality chose not to participate. Recycling is also available to the seven towns if they want to be included in the county's waste program, he said. While in the past the participating municipalities would have to deal directly with recycling brokers, the county now acts as the market maker for the collected materials,
Vrana said. Not only does the county spare municipalities "the vagaries" of the marketplace, he said, but it deals with the brokers from a position of strength because it has more product to sell and that product has been processed and cleaned.
To help build the Yonkers recycling plant, the county issued $20.6 million of general obligation bonds, Vrana said.
Connett acknowledged that Westchester appears to be doing a better job of managing its waste stream than most communities with an incinerator. But plenty of communities without incinerators are managing their waste even more successfully than Westchester, he said. Further, he cited concerns about mercury emissions from Westchester's incinerator.
When landfills began to overflow, municipalities everywhere "tried to solve these problems behind closed doors," Connett said. The municipalities hired consultants who steered them to expensive plants, he said, and that sent money to large corporations outside the community.
And because the officials involved tended to have engineering backgrounds, Connett said, they looked to engineering solutions -- such as incinerators -- for their solid waste problems.
Now, Connett said, unless careful precautions against air pollution are taken, poisons produced by the incinerators will escape into the air. The better the pollution controls preventing the toxins from escaping, he said, the more toxic the leftover ash. For every three tons of trash, one ton of ash is created, he said.
Instead of incinerators, Connett would like to see recycling, composting. and two levels of trash separation. One level of separation would occur before collection and the other would occur before the trip to the landfill.
While Connett opposes Westchester's incinerator, he said, the county is at least doing better than some other municipalities. He cited Indianapolis, for example, as recycling less than one half of 1% of its total waste. "I have more sympathy for Westchester," he said.