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/N 1984, CONFRONTED with dwindling landfill site reserves, Austin voters endorsed a plan to build a municipal waste incinerator. They had initially rejected the measure when the Austin Clean Air Committee, buoyed by commercial landfill member John Mobley’s ten-day $150,000 dollar advertising blitz, aroused enough voter support in August 1983 to defeat the proposal by 27 votes. Following that bond’s narrow defeat, councilman Roger Duncan suggested the city scale down the proposed 1,200-ton-per-day unit to a 600-ton unit, effectively mollifying Mobley and the private landfill lobby. The new proposal gained support from neighborhood and environmental groups with the city’s assurance that it was “cheaper and safer to burn it than bury it.” The proposal passed in a September 1984 election. On June 26, 1986, the Austin City Council passed a resolution to issue bonds for a “waste-to-energy” plant, despite a concert of appeals to delay the project until specific uncertainties relating to the financing, health risks posed, and design of the plant could be resolved. The council, with $1.5 billion worth of voter-approved bonds to issue, nevertheless voted 6-1 in favor of the proposal, calling it the best solution for the city’s solid-waste disposal. Is it really cheaper to burn waste than to bury it? The council majority believes it is, based on the current rising costs of landfill in comparison to the decreasing costs of waste-to-energy plants. The project’s opponents point out, however, that the last thing the city needs is an additional revenue-draining project to burden its budget. Currently, Austin’s annual garbage disposal cost is $830,000. Oscar Baucus, the project manager, anticipates $5 million in annual maintenance and operating costs for a waste-to-energy plant but expects the plant to pay for itself in twelve years. George Humphrey, the lone council member to vote against the project, predicts the plant will be $18 million dollars in the red three years after construction. He further calculates the facility will spend David Gunter is an Observer intern. $3,300 per kilowatt generated, making it 50 percent more expensive than the from which the city is still trying to extricate itself. Jackie Jacobson of the Sierra Club believes it will cost the city $200 million to pay off the $80 million bond at current interest rates and will effectively guarantee that the city’s garbage bills will not decrease until 2006. Operating costs could further escalate if the city declares the ash from the plant toxic, as has happened in some communities. In that case, the hazardous product would have to be sent to the nearest toxic waste dump for at least $110 a ton. The council majority is convinced there will be no significant environmental risks associated with the facility. They insist dioxins and carbofurans, some of the most toxic chemicals known, and various heavy metals can be effectively minimized with efficient combustion and “best available” air pollution controls. Opponents of the plant note, however, that the facility will not circumvent the necessity of landfill as the incinerator will only reduce the original mass 70 to 80 percent. This ash residue, with concentrated toxics produced by these “state of the art” controls, will still be placed in the landfill. The resolution passed by the council states that the city will ensure that the plant will produce air quality equivalent to California ambient air standards, or Swedish air standards, whichever proves to be more stringent. The bid accepted by the city council from Babcock and the California standards. But the bid, as specified by the council’s resolution, does not guarantee they will meet the Swedish air standards. Says Connie Moore, president of the Zilker Park Posse, “B&W, not the city, should guarantee they will meet these emission standards.” Pam Mavrolas, who monitored the emission debate for the Texas Center for Rural Studies, explains, “It is vital for the city to get an emission level guarantee from the manufacturer so it can be reimbursed in the event the incinerator is unable to meet the Swedish criteria, or the contract won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.” Project manager Baucus, when asked about this stipulation, said he did not know of a single boiler manufacturer in the country who would give such a guarantee. Peck Young, former chairman of the city’s Electric Utility Commission, says he is not concerned about the Austin plant’s meeting the Swedish standards, declaring the Swedish study to be nothing but a bunch of “happy hooey. Said Young, “A Canadian plant built by B&W already beats the Swedish values, and the Austin facility, with greater technological advances than any other in the world, will certainly meet or beat the Swedish range of values.” According to Baucus, “We’ll eventually get the guarantee, but it will probably cost the city additional dollars if the plant has to be redesigned.” Austin currently handles 600 tons of garbage a day. A good deal of the toxic material can be kept from entering the plant if the city expands its recycling coverage to most of its municipal routes as planned. Also the resolution will require private haulers to offer recycling service. The burning or landfilling of any material that can be recycled will be prohibited, and a facility for the composting of food waste will be provided. Plastic, leather, and rubber will be buried. Bill Carter of Ecology Action says he is “skeptical about the feasibility of such a plan effectively keeping hazardous material from going into the plant. Cathryn Kennedy of the city’s environmental board is confident, however, “that the rejuvenated recycling program will provide Austin’s plant with one of the best hazardous waste profiles in the country.” Will the recycling program, if suc cessful, leave Austin with an oversized plant? For maximum efficiency the plant will need to run at full capacity, 24 hours a day. Jacobson contends that without an audit of the waste stream, an education program, and implementation of maximum recycling it is impossible to gauge what size incinerator Austin needs. While Baucus is certain the proposed incinerator will be a boon for Austin’s waste and energy needs, others are less convinced. Opponents of the plant believe the possible benefits pale in comparison with the possible liabilities the plant could bring with it. Even if one could ignore the questions of size and safety, the unpredictable economics of the plant seem reason enough to delay the project. In light of the various financial problems associated with STNP, perhaps the council’s nearunanimous approval of the plant can be described as hasty at best. Austin’s Waste Incineration Hazards By David Gunter THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11