WOONSOCKET – Though the proposal has been trashed by environmental groups, State Rep. Jon D. Brien says he'll keep pushing to pass his bill to allow a waste-to-energy plant to be built in the city.
The bill would would lift the state's 20-year ban on waste-to-energy projects and allow only one to be built – at an unspecified location in Woonsocket – provided it complies with all applicable legal and health codes and wins the endorsement of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.
Brien and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, who supports the bill, both say they have had contact with potential developers of a such a facility, but that's about it. Fontaine says it would be fruitless to pursue any sort of formal talks with a prospective developer unless the state exempts Woonsocket from the waste-to-energy ban.
“I support the bill for us to look at options,” says Fontaine. “That's what this thing is all about.”
In this revenue-stagnant economic climate, it's not hard to appreciate the city's interest in waste-to-energy. The city could capture concession fees and big chunk of new property taxes from a major power plant. Tipping fees the city pays to dump trash at Central Landfill in Johnston, a burden that runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, would likely vanish if a waste-to-energy facility were located within its borders.
A Democrat who represents the city's District 50 in the House, Brien chairs the Municipal Government Committee, which held a hearing on the bill last week. A smattering of supporters turned out, but they were largely overshadowed by a chorus of opposition from anti-pollution and renewable energy advocates. Among them were New England Clean Water Action, the Conservation Law Foundation, Save the Bay, People's Power & Light, the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Environmental Council of Rhode Island Education Fund and Toxics Action Center.
“Our waste doesn't pass the sniff test as a renewable energy resource and burning it to make energy is a bad deal for Rhode Island and the nation,” said Abel Collins, program manager for the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Producing less disposable packaging and goods in the first place is the easiest, healthiest and most environmentally friendly way to reduce the burden on our landfills.”
Taryn Hallweaver of Toxics Action Center called Brien's “push to lift the twenty year moratorium on trash burning...a foolhardy idea.” She said incineration has been linked to increased cancer rates in neighboring communities and it competes with recycling programs, which save “three to five times the amount of energy that incinerators waste.”
Brien's proposal has also reanimated long-dormant activists who formed a grassroots opposition group to a coal-fired co-generation plant proposed in the Oak Grove section in 1987. The group was called Concerned Citizens of Woonsocket.
“We're still around and we're getting ready to fight this if we have to,” said Leo Marcoux.
The Larch Street resident said the bill has been pitched as if it should be of concern to residents of Woonsocket alone. But that's not so, says Marcoux.
If such a proposal moves forward, it's highly likely officials will choose a site close to a border with another community in Rhode Island or Massachusetts. Residents in those communities may be forced to bear the brunt of the adverse health effects from toxic emissions, including higher cancer rates, Marcoux argues.
Marcoux likens such a proposal to another Synagro, the private company that runs the city-owned sludge incinerator on Cumberland Street, a facility often blamed – unfairly, some say – for befouling the heavily residential neighborhoods on the east side of the Blackstone River with noxious fumes.
“Do you like Synagro? I'll put it that way,” says Marcoux. “We don't need the pollution this kind of plant is going to put out. And what about traffic? Route 122 and Route 99 – those roads are already heavily traveled through the city. Can you imagine if every waste hauler in the state is coming down those roads at the same time of day what the traffic is going to be like on those roads?”
But Brien says “greenies” and “cultist environmentalists” have adopted a lockstep, kneejerk position on waste-to-energy that is out of sync with the current state of trash-burning science. If burning household trash to generate electricity is so dangerous, he says, why are there 84 plants doing it in 24 states, in addition to many more across Europe?
The truth is, Brien asserts, that modern, high-tech waste-to-energy plants incinerate trash so completely the emissions they release into the atmosphere are “ for the most part, nothing but water vapor.”
Advocates for recycling may argue that waste-to-energy is less friendly to the environment than recycling, but recycling rates aren't growing fast enough to save what's left of the landfill space that's growing increasingly costly for municipalities to use. Just a few weeks ago, Brien said, Central Landfill received a permit to open another tract of 100-plus acres of dump space, enough for just 17 years' worth of the state's garbage.
When the cost of electricity keeps rising, Brien says, it makes no sense to continue burying trash in the ground when it could be used to generate power.
“It is totally illogical to insist that it we should be burying our trash, rather than transforming it into a viable alternative energy resource," according to Brien.
Brien says he thinks he has the votes on his committee to report the waste-to-energy bill out to the floor for a full vote, but he allows that getting a majority of representatives to sign on may be an uphill battle. Still, Brien says, the bill remains alive and he'll keep lobbying his colleagues for support in attempts to get it passed this session.
Even if the bill does not pass, Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran says Syangro is still pursuing plans to build a small power-generating facility adjoining the city-owned incinerator. The idea is to capture the heat lost in the process of incinerating biosolids and funnel it through a turbine to produce electricity.
Though the process involves converting a form of waste into power, McGauvran said the proposal does not meet the definition of a waste-to-energy facility as it is currently set forth in the state ban. It is, rather, a co-generation process, which involves using one form of energy – in this case heat or steam – to produce another. Burrillville has a co-generation plant that converts natural gas to electricity, and several co-generation plants are located in nearby Massachusetts.
If all goes according to plan, says McGauvran, the city will purchase power from the new Synagro co-generator to offset utility costs at the Woonsocket Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. Power for the plant, which the city buys from Hess at a cost of about $1 million a year, could be cut by roughly 10 percent by purchasing electricity from a Synagro co-generation facility, according to McGauvran.