CHARLESTON - Having shut down its controversial garbage incinerator, Charleston County is considering waste disposal options that include a well-connected local firm's proposal to build what could be the nation's first garbage "gasification" system.
Opponents say the process, which involves baking waste at more than 1,000 degrees without combustion, is just another form of incineration. Supporters say it could be a cost-effective way to dispose of trash without landfills while producing "green" energy.
County Council members on both sides of the issue say they have made no decisions about the technology promoted by Charleston-based Energy City despite claims on the company's website that "Energy City is now in negotiations with Charleston County." The roughly 2-year-old company was co-founded by local real estate developer Hank Hofford and Dave Harden, who has conducted strategic training programs for energy companies. Former Berkeley County Supervisor Jim Rozier is a partner, and the technology they are promoting from New Jersey-based Chinook
Energy sounds almost magical.
Garbage goes in, and electricity and recyclable material come out, but without the pollution associated with the incinerator and with lower greenhouse gas emissions than a landfill, according to Harden and the company's literature.
"The process does not result in any harmful emissions," according to the company.
A company fact sheet says the system produces less than 1 percent of most harmful emissions produced by an incinerator. Harden said the company proposes to build a facility with private funding at a yet-to-be-selected site, and then charge the county less than what it pays now to send garbage to a landfill.
"If we didn't think passionately that this would be good for Charleston, we wouldn't be doing it," Harden said.
Energy City would profit from the waste disposal fees; from selling electricity, metals and other materials recovered from the process; and from federal incentives and possibly carbon-trading.
"It sounds too good to be true," said Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who chairs the recycling and solid waste committee. "This technology is just so new, I don't think we are there yet."
Condon hopes to keep the focus on increasing countywide recycling rates, for now.
Chinook Energy's "RODECS" gasification process is used in Europe and at three sites in the United States to prepare metals for recycling, by gasifying the nonmetal components of materials including shredded automobiles. Nowhere in the U.S. is it being used to process municipal solid waste.
A competing process known as plasma arc gasification is used for similar purposes and has been used in other nations to process household waste.
If the gasification plant concept sounds unfamiliar, that's because it hasn't been discussed in any detail in public.
Council members individually have heard Energy City's plan, and in July Councilman Elliott Summey proposed that the county begin negotiations with the company. Council members initially agreed, but later that night decided instead to request a presentation from county officials about the technology and others proposed to the county.
"It really wasn't so much that I wanted to negotiate with them or anyone else," Summey said this week. "The only reason I did this is to light a fire, because obviously that worked."
He said the county requested proposals involving alternative waste disposal methods last year and received 11 in December, and he grew tired of waiting for a staff briefing. The presentation County Council called for is expected later this month, but a date has not been set.
"I haven't made my mind up about anything, and I think that's true for the rest of council," Summey said.
The plan now is for County Attorney Joe Dawson and waste disposal consultant Mitch Kessler to present information on the four proposals considered the most promising. Several council members said they don't know what companies and technologies will be presented other than Energy City's gasification concept.
"Does Energy City have a leg up? Frankly, if you look at how we operate, we have a local preference in a lot of our procurement operations anyway," said Councilman Paul Thurmond. "If another company has a superior product and the best price, of course we'll go with them.
"If the technology is as they claim, and we don't put any money up front, and we can withdraw if it doesn't work out, then what is the harm in trying?" he said.
In April, Summey, Dawson and Kessler went to North Carolina for a demonstration of Chinook Energy's gasification technology with Hofford, Rozier and others. A load of municipal waste from Charleston County was fed into a gasification facility that's normally used to recycle shredded cars.
"They took some waste -- garbage -- dumped it into this metal container, almost like a small cargo container," Summey recalled. "They put it in this machine that kept moving and turning it. An hour later, they opened it up and it looked like metal shaving."
The Sierra Club already has come out in opposition, arguing that gasification is an unproven technology that could harm the environment and divert resources from recycling. The Coastal Conservation League also is concerned.
"They are not eliminating all the dioxin and furans that would be coming out of this plant, and that's pretty scary stuff," said CCL's Katie Zimmerman. "I don't understand the rush to invest in any of these emerging technologies."
Harden said Energy City's proposal carries no risk for the county, because it involves no upfront taxpayer funding and the county could back out of the deal if the technology doesn't perform as promised. County Council members, environmental groups and others are waiting to seeing the details, and hear what competing companies have to offer.
Incinerator vs. landfill
Charleston County Council last summer decided to shut down the privately owned incinerator in North Charleston that had for the past 20 years reduced most of the county's household waste to ash.
The decision pleased incinerator opponents but raised new questions about how to dispose of roughly 300,000 tons of annual household waste.
That question is at the heart of the issue dealing with alternative waste-disposal technologies, such as gasification.
The incinerator shut down at the end of December, and today the county's waste is trucked to either the county-owned Bees Ferry Landfill or the privately owned Oakridge Landfill in Dorchester County.
Overall expenses have been reduced, and this year the county temporarily reduced the fee that households pay annually for waste disposal.
Efforts to improve recycling have diverted some waste from landfills, although much of the sharp improvement in recycling rates was accomplished by ending the county's practice of dumping more than half of the yard waste it collected at the Bees Ferry Landfill, rather than composting the material, which the county counts as recycling.
Having doubled the countywide recycling rate to 21 percent, the county hopes to nearly double it again to 40 percent.
Going forward, county officials will be considering whether there's a good alternative to putting what can't be recycled in a landfill.