POSTED ON JULY 25, 2012:
Waste-to-energy plant remains solid part of city's trash plans
None of the six states that border Oklahoma have a trash facility like the one in Tulsa, according to a 2010 report from the Energy Recovery Council, a trade organization.
Tulsa's waste-to-energy plant -- also the only one of its kind in the state - takes in the more than 100,000 tons in city residential trash yearly, burning it to produce pressurized steam which then cranks a turbine to produce electricity.
But the area also has landfills -- meaning city leaders have options for final trash disposal. The city recently entered into a 10-year deal with the waste-to-energy facility, a move attracting much less attention than changes to trash containers and curbside pickup, despite waste-to-energy having an interesting history of its own. City officials say the move offers financial value, but they surely hope things fare better than the last such long-term deal with the plant.
Back in the 1980s, Tulsa city leaders invested heavily in waste-to-energy, issuing more than $92 million in revenue bonds to pay for construction of the plant just off West 21st Street.
At the time, permitted landfill space seemed like a scarce commodity, said Eric Lee, the city's solid waste services manager. The incinerator opened in 1986. But the finances never ran as smoothly as city leaders hoped, however, in part because natural gas prices didn't rise as expected, leading to a lower value for the pressurized steam sold to a nearby petroleum refinery. Ultimately, costs were passed on to trash customers.
Lee said that after the plant began operating, a landfill known as the Quarry Landfill opened. But Tulsa remained locked in a 20-year-deal to send trash to the incinerator. When the deal expired in 2007, Tulsa began sending all its residential trash to the landfill, though in 2009 trash once again went to the incinerator in a short-term deal. Also in 2007, the city began to allow commercial haulers who service businesses the freedom to choose the disposal destination for that waste.
Though the plant's history in Tulsa has been checkered, the plant owner and operator, Covanta Energy, touts waste-to-energy as a way to reduce the amount of trash that goes to a landfill by 90 percent -- ash produced at the plant winds up at a landfill in Sand Springs, where it's used as a daily cover for sanitation purposes - while also recovering energy.
The choice to continue using the waste-to-energy facility was made by the city only after careful scrutiny of several bids, said Lee.
Both in 2009 when it received a short-term contract and with the most recent long-term deal, Covanta offered the lowest bid.
In January, the city's trash board approved a 10-year-contract with the New Jersey-based Covanta, agreeing to pay $11.74 per ton of residential trash sent to the site, 26 cents cheaper than a bid put in by Waste Management, operator of the Quarry Landfill. For the 12-month period that ended June 30, the city sent 126,322 tons of residential waste to disposal, Lee said.
From the start, the city never planned to own the plant, said Lee.
"The city did not want to be in the business of owning and operating an additional facility," Lee said.
But with the new deal -- unlike the original 1980s agreement -- the city isn't contractually obligated to send a minimum amount of trash to the facility, so the city's push for recycling won't lead to any financial strains.
Along with, at times, being a financial burden to the city, the plant has also sometimes struggled to meet environmental requirements. Most recently, based on a jump in emissions at the plant under previous ownership, Covanta in 2009 paid a $13,650 penalty to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.
Problems first discovered by environmental investigators in December 2006 ended up being related to pollution control equipment that wasn't rated to work correctly during operational temperature spikes. Regulators noted that the plant exceeded limits during 67 "excess emission events" from January 2005 through March 2007.
Covanta took control of the plant in 2008. James Regan, manager of media relations for Covanta, said the company's experience allows it to operate the Tulsa facility efficiently and well within environmental regulations.
"It's obviously a complicated process, but we've got unparalleled experience. We've been doing this for 25 years, and we run our facility very well," said Regan, adding that "the guts of the facility are constantly updated and maintained."
The plant is a recycler itself, recovering 6,000 tons of metal yearly to be recycled.
Some remain wary of such a long-term agreement, however.
Barbara VanHanken, a board member for the Green Country Sierra Club, said she once toured the Covanta plant. While her "overall reaction was on the positive side," she remains concerned about air quality in Tulsa and the air pollution emitted by the plant.
Tulsa's air quality hovers just on the border of pollution levels that would designate the region as a non-attainment area, kicking in more stringent Environmental Protection Agency oversight.
As a national organization, the Sierra Club opposes combustion of municipal waste because of "unacceptable toxic and hazardous air emissions."
"Signing a 10-year contract sounds pretty long to me," VanHanken said, adding that "there's a whole lot of environmental issues that are going to be very different in 10 years then they are now."
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