County weighs new approach to trash

York County leaders will begin talks this fall on a new way to deal with the area's growing trash problem.

They plan to consider what's known as a waste-to-energy facility where garbage is burned at super-high temperatures and used to produce anything from electricity to road pavement.

Though the idea would likely be an expensive endeavor, some on the County Council say they are convinced it's worth a serious look. Such facilities can cost as much as $300 million to build, but supporters argue they save money over time.

"We've got to be thinking past tomorrow," said Councilman Joe Cox. "If you really step back out of the box and say, 'What is the best equation?', this is it."

Cox and other county officials visited a waste-to-energy facility in Charleston last month at the urging of retired engineer Chet Miller, who brought the concept to the attention of county leaders earlier this year.

Like Cox, Councilman Paul Lindemann says waste-to-energy offers a better long-term option than the county's current approach -- paying to truck 400 tons of garbage to Richland County every day.

They also point out that such a facility could end the need for construction and debris landfills, which have ignited a series of costly disputes around the county.

"You throw a bunch of garbage in, and it comes out a bunch of energy," explained Lindemann, who learned about the facilities by talking to a friend in Washington, D.C., who is familiar with how they work.

"The first two or three months of the year, all we talked about is landfill, landfill, landfill," Lindemann said. "This pretty much eliminates the landfill need."

Waste-to-energy technology has been around for decades, but no new plants have been built in the past 12 years. A Supreme Court ruling in the mid-1990s made it harder to pay for the facilities, which are expensive up front, experts say.

The plants are not only expensive to build but also are complicated to run. Although EPA regulations are stricter for waste-to-energy facilities than for coal-fired power plants, waste-to-energy has suffered from negative public perception. The facilities are known by many as incinerators, though supporters say the recycling aspect makes them different.

In York County, perceptions may connect to a unique local experience. Many remember the saga of ThermalKEM, a hazardous waste incinerator that operated off Vernsdale Road south of Rock Hill. Neighbors spent years battling the company and eventually succeeded in getting the site shut down by state inspectors.

Some neighbors, however, say they've suffered illnesses that can be traced to the toxic chemicals.

"Some people are going to try to relate this to ThermalKEM," Lindemann said. "It has nothing to do with ThermalKEM."

At other facilities, garbage is converted into small rocks, similar in appearance to coal, that can be used as a base for roads, Lindemann said. Also, electricity generated at the sites can be bought by local power providers.

The Charleston facility produces two products for sale, steam to a nearby Navy base and electricity sold to Carolina Power & Light.

The waste-to-energy technology is gaining renewed popularity as space for landfills gets swallowed up by new construction and energy prices rise.

County staff members are setting up a residents' group that would study waste issues in the county and make recommendations. Waste-to-energy is something the group could consider, Councilman Buddy Motz has said.

The real issue, though, may be cost. Unless the facility burns more than 1,000 tons of garbage a day, experts say they don't make sense financially. York County generates about 400 tons of garbage per day.

But with the county's population expected to reach more than 300,000 by 2025, leaders say planning for the future may require investing in a new approach now.