My name is Wendi Taylor and I have lived in the city of Harrisburg since 1985. I first learned about the Harrisburg Incinerator in 1986 while I was a newspaper reporter for The Patriot-News covering City Hall. Back then, people used to come to City Council to complain about the ash from the incinerator that covered their neighborhoods.
The Harrisburg Incinerator is almost 30 years old. When the incinerator was first conceived and built, burning trash to create energy sounded like a good idea. Now we know that some of the byproducts of burning municipal trash are harmful. Further, we know that the incinerator has not been a moneymaker. The incinerator has always been troubled with unforeseen events - fires, breakdowns, floods, and the like. However, its greatest challenge was a foreseeable event - the clean air standards that recently took effect.
Even though the city knew years in advance that the Harrisburg Incinerator needed to comply with stricter clean air standards, the Harrisburg Authority and the city waited until the last minute to address the problem. And when they did address the problem, they did not come up with real solution, they came up with a political solution. They negotiated an agreement to keep the incinerator open. Under the agreement, the city agreed to burn less trash, which I believe was supposed to mean that the plant would emit fewer pollutants.
I am not an expert on incinerators or incineration. I do not have the time to read all the information on file with various government agencies and even if I did, I don't have the expertise to interpret all the data concerning the Harrisburg Incinerator. To me it comes down to one thing: Whom do we believe?
Do we believe the EPA, who closed down the Harrisburg Incinerator because it did not meet clean air standards? The EPA is charged with protecting the environment, which sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Some say EPA's standards are arbitrary. However, I believe that the EPA arrived at its standards based on some scientific information and the standards are meant to protect the environment and our health.
Should we believe the state DEP, which is charged with protecting the environment here in the Commonwealth? This agency is supposed to weigh all the facts and decide whether the Harrisburg Incinerator meets the standards necessary to continue to operate.
The incinerator's first emissions test since the derating revealed that one of the units could not meet the standards set in the agreement and the city was fined. I believe the city did its best to pass this test and the results showed how the unit operated on its best days - not its worst days.
This month, another test is being performed, whose results will not be available until after this public hearing.
Should we believe the Harrisburg Authority and the city when they say the incinerator is safe? The authority and the city have been strident in their criticism of any study or anyone who raises issues about the incinerator's safety or effect on human health. They say the incinerator poses not threat to health and any study that show anything to the contrary is "flawed." Now it turns out that the analysis on which the Authority and the city have based its claim may be flawed and incomplete. So should we believe that an incinerator -- that cannot meet clean air standards -- is safe? Should we believe that city employees who work there everyday are safe? Should we believe that the people who live near the plant are safe?
Should we believe the environmentalists who say that dioxin is poisonous and that the Harrisburg Incinerator could be one of the largest producers of dioxin in America? How can we be sure that the dioxin produced in our incinerator is not causing health problems somewhere? I have to believe that the dioxin is somewhere.
Should we believe Penn Future whose analysis concluded that the planned improvements to the Harrisburg Incinerator couldn't be justified from a financial point of view? While both the Authority and the city contend the analysis is wrong, neither has provided their financial analysis to refute the claims made by Penn Future.
Should we believe that we can make the incinerator profitable by spending another $60 million on improvements? For years citizens have been told that if we just borrow this much more we can make the necessary improvements and turn a profit. It hasn't happened before, so why should we believe it now?
Should we believe that the Harrisburg Authority and the city have the skill to operate this plant efficiently and effectively? The authority lost almost $7.5 million last year, according to its last audit. About $2.5 million of that loss can be attributed to the operation of the incinerator.
Let's examine the relationship between the Harrisburg Authority and the City of Harrisburg. The Harrisburg Authority owns the Harrisburg Incinerator, but all of its debts are backed by the full faith and credit of the city, which means that if the incinerator cannot generate enough money to pay its bills, the city taxpayers will have to pay them. In many ways, the ownership of the incinerator is in name only. However, the city administration has derived some monetary benefits from this arrangement with the authority. In the last restructuring of the debt, the Harrisburg Authority paid millions of dollars in fees to the city for co-signing the loans. The fee was large enough to plug the hole in the city budget so that our City Council and mayor did not have to raise taxes in an election year. Meanwhile, the city taxpayers were forced to invest in a business that is failing, could not pay its bills, and could not meet government regulations that are meant to safeguard the community.
We know the city burns more garbage than city residents produce. Our best estimate is that only one-quarter of the incinerator's current capacity is actually needed to handle the city's trash. Because most of what we burn in the incinerator is not our trash, when all is said and done, we still remaining ash dispose of that is equivalent to about 60 percent of the volume of all the trash we would have if we would have just taken care of own garbage in the first place. However, there is a difference. The remaining ash is more toxic than regular garbage; it just doesn't smell as bad.
When the incinerator closes, we are still left with the ash that has been piled up on that site for years. And, it is important to note that even though the Harrisburg Authority owns the incinerator, according to the sales agreement, the city is responsible for cleaning up the site and getting rid of the ash being held in those pits.
How have we gained anything from operating this incinerator? We have gained a pile of debt from the repeated restructuring of the debt -- far greater than the value of the facility. We are contemplating even more debt to make the needed improvements, which cannot in the current market pay for itself. And we have the unrecognized liability of the clean up, which will probably cost as much as if we landfilled our garbage in the first place. If we have saved landfill space as the mayor claims, we have not saved it for us. We have saved other communities from landfilling their trash. Their trash sits in those ash pits adjoining our public housing neighborhoods and the Cameron Park neighborhoods.
The city and the Harrisburg Authority have put the citizens of Harrisburg is a lose-lose situation. Closing the incinerator will have disastrous consequences and keeping it open has disastrous consequences. I liken the situation to the homeowner who has taken out so many home equity loans that he owes much more than his home is worth. Then the time comes that he has to replace the roof on his house. He has already borrowed all he can against the house and he has maxed out his credit cards. So what does he do?
What do we do? The time has come to close it down and come up with a better plan to handle the city's trash. There is no shame in closing it down. What would be a shame is continuing to operate the facility, when it does not make financial or environmental sense. At least if we close down the facility, we will stop polluting our hemisphere and we can cut our losses. Owing $55 million is better than owing $115 million.
I have attached some articles and supplemental materials that will provide more detail than I can provide in 10 minutes. I hope you will take some time to review it.