Harrisburg: Give us trash

Pennsylvania city's mayor says his facilities could start taking all of Staten Island's garbage immediately

March 12, 1999


The interstate trash wars just took a pro-trash turn: Harrisburg, Pa., wants New York City's garbage.

Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed has told Borough President Guy V. Molinari his city is "ready, willing and able to enter an agreement to accept municipal solid waste from the city of New York immediately."

Molinari said the approach by Reed "proves that, all the political rhetoric to the contrary, there are many localities that badly need and want the revenue New York City garbage will bring."

And that, Molinari said, is good news for on-time landfill closure.

Molinari said he's confident Harrisburg would be able to handle the 1,100 tons of trash Staten Island produces daily, although Reed told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that initially the city would be able to accept only 150 tons a day.

All this has a big if attached to it, though. The waste-to-energy incinerator is an aging facility that must undergo $90 million worth of fixing before the year 2000 or the federal Environmental Protection Agency will reduce the amount of waste it can handle to 500 tons a day, not increase it.

The plant now is licensed to burn 720 tons a day, and is almost at capacity. The retrofit will give the Harrisburg plant a capacity of about 960 tons a day, allowing it to accept at least some of New York's waste, Reed said.

But before doing the required renovations, Harrisburg needs to find a way of paying for it.

Reed needs to sign a long-term contract with the city before he can borrow the money needed to retrofit the incinerator with the latest in pollution-prevention technology.

Molinari praised Reed's can-do attitude. He said while Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and the governors of New Jersey and Virginia have a hell-no attitude on the interstate transport of garbage -- a matter expected to become the focal point of a pitched political battle in Congress -- Harrisburg's interest in New York City trash means that the chief executives of neighboring states need to find out what their mayors and county executives really want.

Reed said he believes Ridge is concerned about landfill space and not waste going to incinerators.

Molinari said yesterday that he's had several conversations with an upstate legislator who said his district also would welcome New York City trash for revenue purposes. Molinari declined to name the legislator.

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman issued a "drop dead New York" edict on the prospect of garbage-laden barges making their way past Jersey beaches en route to landfills. And Virginia lawmakers have inked bills forbidding trash shipments by barge, capping dump capacity and nixing construction of new landfills in their state. Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is poised to sign the measure.

The anti-trash talk has been seen as a threat to the Giuliani administration's ability to deliver on its promise to close Fresh Kills by Dec. 31, 2001 -- a linchpin of which is to export trash to out-of-state dumps.

Also stymieing on-time closure are lawsuits from Brooklyn over the siting of waste transfer stations and -- even more potentially damaging -- the federal probe of possible environmental discrimination with the siting of those facilities in low-income minority communities.

In an outreach letter Reed sent to Molinari, the Harrisburg mayor noted that his city sent an "expression of interest" to city and borough officials almost two years ago regarding Harrisburg's "fully integrated waste management system, including its Materials, Energy, Recycling and Resource Recovery facility and transfer station for the processing and disposal of municipal waste generated in Staten Island."

Reed also noted that members of his staff met with representatives of Molinari "for the purpose of negotiating a direct intergovernmental agreement between the city of New York and its boroughs and the city of Harrisburg for the processing and disposal of Staten Island's municipal waste."

Now, Reed said, he wants to "reconfirm the commitment of the city of Harrisburg to provide waste processing and disposal services."

"As a resource recovery facility," Reed added, "we do not use valuable land and our facility recovers energy and recyclable materials. The city of Harrisburg remains confident that an intergovernmental agreement would provide substantial benefits to each of our respective municipalities. We would welcome the opportunity for our staffs to discuss further the terms and mutual benefits that can be arranged for our respective governments."

The Harrisburg plant fell on hard times in the 1990s when two local counties adopted waste control plans that excluded the incinerator as a disposal site, although both municipalities recently amended their plans to give municipalities the option of sending their garbage to Harrisburg.

"When the two counties took away all that business from us, they took away millions of dollars a year from the city's facility," Reed said. "We wouldn't have to take one piece of New York trash if we had enough local trash."

Molinari said he wanted to handle the negotiations himself.

"If we can work this out, it will be a government-to-government contract, so we won't have to go through competitive bidding," Molinari said.

Sticking points could include the method used to transport the trash, by truck or rail, and the plant's troubled past.

According to reports in the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot News, the facility has been plagued by mechanical problems which have forced periodic shutdowns.

In fact, while Reed wants to sign a contract with the city now in order to secure the financing, there is reason to doubt whether the work will be completed in time.

In order to retrofit the plant with the latest in pollution prevention technology, the plant will have to be closed for 18 months to two years.

(ADVANCE STAFF WRITER Don Gross contributed to this report.)