Harrisburg Incinerator Derating Plan Approval

It is amazing that we are standing here today. Isn't it? It is amazing that we are standing here debating whether the Harrisburg Trash Incinerator, in the deplorable state that it is in, should be permitted to continue burning trash.

If it were not that the Incinerator has had a miserable compliance history, or if were not that the large majority of the waste burned at the Incinerator was imported, or if were not that the Incinerator has lost over $18 million since 1993, then I would probably not be standing here before you.

I have taken a long, hard look at the Incinerator's compliance and economic histories. This is what I have found. The Incinerator has certainly not been the recipient of awards as a state of the art waste management facility, but it has cleaned up in the category of Notices of Violations. The Incinerator's "out-of-compliance" history reads like a dirty laundry list. Numerous violations dating back to at least 1988 have been issued for visible emissions, fugitive emissions, trash on the tipping floor, ash deposited off property, and ash deposits within the facility. While I do not know if there is a specific violation for rodent infestation, the rats don't seem to mind either way.

To top off the cake, the Harrisburg Trash Incinerator's Unit 1 exceeded the Agreed upon dioxin emission limit during its May 2001 test. And the established limit is high! It is not only high, it is extraordinarily high! It is 25 times higher than the newly established limit for combustors with ESPs and 50 times higher for combustors without ESPs. And the combined test results for the two units from May put this Incinerator's dioxin emissions at about 100 times higher than the dioxin emissions at other facilities in this region. The Agreed upon limit of 1,500 ng/dscm was entered into a number of years ago because at that time the Incinerator's dioxin emissions were astronomical and had to be reigned in, not because the City was trying to "Do the right thing."

The City claims the facility produces energy that decreases the dependence on polluting fossil fuels, many of which are largely imported from foreign sources. Yet, the City fails to accept that replacing one harmful energy source with another does not solve the problem. It only shifts it. Waste is NOT a renewable or environmentally friendly source of energy. And this argument begets the dilemma that if we want to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign suppliers, then we should create more and more trash to burn. How foolish!

The City also states that it receives income from the generation of steam. What a misconception! The City transfers steam to the Steam Works and then it is vented off. It is not used to heat any residences, businesses, or government offices. And the income received is less than one percent of the income generated from the operation of the facility.

So, why have the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Environmental Protection Agency continued to allow the Harrisburg Incinerator to operate, pollute, and put people and the environment at risk?

Is it because the City has threatened to sue these agencies for requiring a derating plan approval? Is it because the City claims it will have to lay off workers if the facility were shut down? Is it because City taxpayers might have to help bail out the Incinerator financially if it were shut down? Well, these are legal, political and economic questions. And they are dilemmas, to be sure. But who created them? Not the Pennsylvania DEP. Not the United States EPA. Not the citizens of Harrisburg. Not the employees of the facility, at least not the non-management employees. And not the concerned citizens who want the facility shut down.

So, why are these people being asked to bail out the facility and to bear the burden for its continued operation? And why do many of them continue to support the City's position that the facility should remain operational? Could it be because of the prospect that the facility might one day be "modernized"? I emphasize the part might one day. You see, the City has talked about modernizing the facility as early as 1989. That year the Mayor was informed that emissions limits were to be considered in the near future for Trash Incinerators. And that year the Mayor put the facility on the market. Offers came and offers went. Yet, the facility remained in the hands of the City. Three of four companies who offered to buy the facility and modernize it said at that time the facility was too poorly managed to be retrofit, but instead it had to be rebuilt.

In 1991, the City began its application to the Pennsylvania DEP for a major permit modification of the facility. In 1994, without a major modification ever being done, the City sold the Harrisburg Incinerator to the Harrisburg Authority. The Authority had to acquire a bond to purchase the facility. One of the purposes the bond proceeds was to be used for was to fund, in part, the modernization of the Incinerator. No modernization has been done and there is no money left to do it, which is why the City will have to take out a new bond to add to the old. As recently as 1999, the Harrisburg Authority has estimated the cost of the modernization of the facility to be about $150 million. Add that to the $144 million the Authority is already scheduled to pay on Incinerator bonds, and you may very well conclude as I have that this modernization will very likely never be undertaken. Even if it is, the City will be priced out of the local waste market and will be forced to choose between running a deficit and shutting down, again poising itself to be incapable of affording to comply with environmental standards as the facility ages.

The irony is that a modernized facility stands a good chance of meeting the emissions limits set by the regulatory agencies, yet such a proposal may have to withstand the scrutiny of rigorous land use, environmental and public health assessments, cost-benefit analyses, and possibly consideration of cumulative effects on neighboring communities. From my perspective that is all good. However, the Authority and the City, on behalf of this facility, can submit a plan to derate the Incinerator and can apply for the requisite air and waste permits without ever having to conduct environmental assessments, cumulative effects analyses, or health studies on residents or workers (who by the way are the most at risk). And given the lack of regard for people, places and things over the many years of operation of this facility, one does not have to wonder if the priorities of the regulatory system are out of place, they are!

If there were ever a time to address this shortcoming, and to right a system that has been stood on its head, NOW is that time. This Incinerator poses the perfect case. It is time for a gut check and some belt tightening. It is time to do the right thing. It is time to shut the Harrisburg Incinerator down. It is time to conduct health studies and remedy related conditions. And, while I cannot speak for Incinerator employees, I for one would like to see their smooth transition to safer jobs with no loss in time, pay or benefits, something the City is perfectly capable of accomplishing. But is the Mayor willing?

Frank Divonzo
Harrisburg, PA
September 26, 2001 (Amended)