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Chester Co. incinerator could bring jobs but pollute the air

State leaders will soon decide if South Carolina needs a $450 million garbage incinerator that could create jobs but release toxic air into the skies above Chester County.

A bill allowing a New Jersey company to build the incinerator was introduced Thursday in the Legislature after months of discussion.

It's questionable whether the Legislature has time this year to approve the measure, but project backers say the "waste-to-energy" plant needs consideration. Covanta's proposed commercial incinerator, the only one of its kind in the state, would burn household garbage to make electricity.

"I want South Carolina to take a serious look at this thing and see whether or not this is something that is workable for us," said Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, who co-sponsored the bill.

But the plant is forecast to release mercury and other air pollutants, a concern to environmentalists and some local residents. And critics say the state has more than enough landfill capacity to handle its own garbage, so the existence of a new incinerator invites other states to send their trash to South Carolina - a charge Covanta denies.

"Our concern remains that this would create a new in-state market for out-of-state waste," said Cary Chamblee, a lobbyist for the state Sierra Club and the S.C. Wildlife Federation. "We are concerned about the reputation that South Carolina has had in the past about being the dumping ground for hazardous waste and for nuclear waste."

The bill, introduced near the end of day Thursday, allows the Covanta project to exceed a state limit on the amount of garbage it could burn each day. That will allow Covanta to incinerate enough trash to make the investment worthwhile, company officials and their supporters say.

By state law, incinerators are limited to burning no more than 600 tons per day. But the bill treats differently any facilities that burn waste while also producing energy.

The proposal allows exceptions to the 600 ton-per-day cap. The company could buy unused capacity from landfills so that it could burn more than 600 tons per day, according to the plan. The company has said it needs to burn about 1,600 tons per day to be profitable.

Covanta's waste-to-energy plant would be built on about 100 acres near Fort Lawn in eastern Chester County. The plant, which would feature a nearly 300-foot-tall emissions stack, would produce up to 500 construction jobs and about 55 permanent positions, company officials say. Despite air pollution concerns, company officials say equipment to control mercury and other contaminants is designed to substantially limit the releases.

The Senate needs to approve the bill and send it to the House before a May 1 deadline. If not, it will be difficult for the legislation to pass this year. Covanta is pushing for approval this year so it can take advantage of tax credits through the federal stimulus law. To qualify, the plant must be running by 2014. Covanta finance officials are counting on stimulus money as part of a financing plan for the plant.

"Not getting something done this year really makes this a tough project to get" built in South Carolina, said Paul Gilman, a senior official with Covanta Energy.

That would be all right with plant opponents. Not only are they concerned about out-of-state waste coming to the Covanta site, but they also believe the bill could undermine existing state rules that were changed last year to limit the flow of out-of-state waste.

During the past 20 years, South Carolina has closed at least two hazardous waste incinerators, a toxic waste landfill, a medical waste incinerator and a nuclear waste dump to the nation. But the state still has a number of mega landfills that import waste from New Jersey, Massachusetts and other East Coast states.

"Under the ruse of feel-good energy, they are just moving garbage to a landfill in the sky," Conservation Voters of South Carolina director Ann Timberlake said of the incinerator plan.

Scott, who introduced the bill with Fairfield County Democrat Creighton Coleman and four other senators, said the incinerator could actually help the state reduce its dependence on garbage landfills that can leak pollutants to groundwater.