Burn This!

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New York City has moved a step closer to building its first municipal incinerator in more than four decades. In October, the Department of Sanitation announced it would entertain proposals for new technology to handle Staten Island's trash and recycling–including “waste-to-energy” plants that combust selected refuse to create electrical power. The decision represents a complete about-face for the department, which until recently insisted that no existing type of high-tech facility could handle the city's trash.

It also opens the way for Staten Island-based Visy Paper, which handles 40 percent of the city's paper recycling, to make the leap into handling all of Staten Island's trash and recycling for the next 20 years.

Environmental groups, which have praised Sanitation for opting to issue 20-year contracts on the city's recycling of metal, glass and plastic, have reacted cautiously to the news.

“There are real environmental, public health and economic concerns about moving forward any incineration proposal in New York City,” says Marc Izeman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Besides, he adds, it may be more expensive. “From the preliminary details that have been released it's not clear that this is a good economic deal for New York City.”

Under Visy Paper's proposal, the company, a subsidiary of Australian paper giant Pratt Industries, would build a “recycle and recovery” plant that would dry waste and turn it into fuel pellets, which would then be burned to power its paper recycling mill. Visy spokesperson Mike O'Regan asserts the new method is a far cry from traditional incineration. “This is not normal combustion,” he says. “Less oxygen is used, which in turn means lower levels of nitrogen oxide” emissions.

This isn't the first time alternative technology has been proposed to ease the city's trash burden. Several companies have introduced similar plans [See “Hot Trash,” July/August 2003]. But it is the first time Sanitation has gotten serious about the idea. Agency spokesperson Kathy Dawkins declined to give specific reasons for the change of direction. “I think we are just looking at different ideas, and if someone has a proposal we will take a look at it and see if it fits our needs,” she says.

That's good news for Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, who in September traveled to Germany to learn more about the new technology, and Staten Island Councilmember and Sanitation Committee Chair Michael McMahon. In their borough, the alternative possibility that the Fresh Kills landfill could reopen would be a politician's worst nightmare. “I think the city has to take a serious look at the developing technologies for long-term planning,” says McMahon, a frequent and outspoken critic of DOS' waste handling. “Sooner or later landfill space is going to run out, and unless the city actively pursues this, we are going to be stuck.”

Meanwhile, on Staten Island, at least one community group says it has no problem with an “alternative” energy plant. “We were very happy to hear about this idea,” reports Angela D'Aiuto, vice president of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, which was formed two and half years ago to fight the expansion of waste transfer stations in Port Richmond and West Briton. “We are concerned about Fresh Kills, and any garbage transfer facility there could be more of an issue for Staten Island air quality. We like Visy, because it's a cleaner way to [deal with] garbage.”

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