County incinerator no longer adds up
In a move that affects how 330,000 residents get rid of their trash, Charleston County plans to shut its garbage incinerator in 2010 and rely instead on its Bees Ferry Road landfill and a future dump near Adams Run.
County Council's decision reshuffles how cities and public service districts collect and dispose of garbage, possibly increasing costs for some municipalities, especially those east of the Cooper River.
The incinerator, built in the late 1980s, converts 230,000 tons of trash a year, or 80 percent of the county's garbage, into smoke, steam and a thick black ash. When running at full bore, its generators pump enough electricity into the power grid to light 7,000 to 10,000 homes.
The plant, on Shipyard Creek Road in North Charleston, also is one of the state's biggest sources of mercury pollution, releasing about 129 pounds a year, more than some of the state's larger coal-fired power plants and twice as much as Nucor's smelter in Berkeley County, state records show. Municipal incinerators across the country have come under increasing fire for emitting dioxin and other cancer-causing pollutants.
After crunching the numbers and reviewing three other options, County Council voted unanimously last week to stop using the incinerator at the end of 2009.
"It's a significant change in county policy and practices," Chairman Tim Scott said. The county is paying Montenay Charleston Resource Recovery $446,500 to run the incinerator until 2010.
Starting in January 2010, about 65 to 75 garbage trucks that normally would unload at the incinerator would head to the Bees Ferry landfill on the western edge of Charleston.
All household and municipal waste would go there until the dump fills up, which is expected to happen in 2024. A new landfill would then be developed off U.S. Highway 17 near Adams Run. The county owns the land for the new dump but has not built it.
The county's decision caught some town officials by surprise. "It snuck up on us a little," said Mac Burdette, Mount Pleasant's town administrator. "It's definitely going to have an impact on us, and I wish they would have involved the stakeholders a little more."
Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island will feel the incinerator's closure the most because it will force these municipalities to send their trucks across the county instead of to the more centrally located incinerator.
That will add wear and tear on trucks, Burdette said. Crews will spend more time in traffic instead of collecting garbage from curbs, possibly forcing the town to add employees. Burdette said the town recently hired a consultant to estimate the impact. "It's going to cost us some money," he said of the county's move.
While municipalities weigh the effects of life without trash incineration, conservationists cheered the county's decision.
"It's good news," said Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League. The incinerator's technology is old and dirty, and its mercury emissions are among the worst in South Carolina, she said.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin linked to birth defects and other health problems. A recent series by The Post and Courier showed how some of the state's worst mercury polluters, including the incinerator, are in and around the Charleston metro area.
Incinerators in some states have come under fire for their mercury emissions, especially in Florida. A recent study found that when these plants were closed or they reduced mercury emissions, mercury levels in wildlife and fish went down.
Vinson said the incinerator's pending closure still raises questions about how county residents can dispose of items such as thermometers, batteries and compact fluorescent bulbs, all of which usually contain mercury and other heavy metals. She also wondered how it would affect the lifespans of the county's landfills.
To extend the lives of the landfills, the county plans to stop accepting construction and demolition waste from private haulers and contractors after June.
County officials said private vegetative and construction material can instead be dumped at private facilities, including the Fennell Container Co. operation in North Charleston.
Scott said that by limiting the amount of waste pouring into the dumps, the county could continue landfilling for about 37 years. He said the county eventually will build a transfer station — a centrally located place where municipalities can dump garbage and larger trucks can haul it to landfills in western Charleston County.
"It'd be nice to have a transfer station somewhere in Mount Pleasant," Scott said.
Solid Waste Director Gregg Varner said the county might be able to convert the incinerator plant into a transfer station. But that's to be decided, he said. Charleston County owns the land, but AT&T Credit Corp. owns the facility and Montenay runs daily operations.
Plant manager Lee Bazzle said Montenay hasn't ruled out privately operating the incinerator. "We're just regrouping right now," Bazzle said.
Carolina Power & Light Co. pays the county about $4 million a year for the incinerator's electricity.
"All of that was considered," Varner said. "The financial analysis still proved out that the landfill option was less expensive over the 20 year planning period."