Incinerator improvements hinge on contract renewal

The company that has been running Charleston County's trash incinerator for nearly 20 years says it would like to put in place better air pollution controls and purchase a new generator that would produce more power.

The company that's been running Charleston County's trash incinerator for nearly 20 years says it plans to improve the facility if its contract is extended.

Montenay Charleston Resource Recovery will put in place better air- pollution controls and purchase a new generator that would produce more power if it continues operating the incinerator beyond 2010, facility manger Lee Bazzle said.

Charleston County is in the process of creating a plan for how it will handle its trash for the next 20 to 30 years. That process, which will be completed later this year, will include a decision on whether to extend Montenay's contract to run the incinerator, where 70 percent of the county's household waste is burned. If the contract isn't extended, more trash will go the Bees Ferry Landfill and it will be full by 2024, six years earlier than if the incinerator remains open.

The county is considering extending Montenay's contract despite strong opposition from predominantly black North Charleston neighborhood groups that say residents are tired of the facility's ash, stench and health risks.

Bazzle bristles at the facility being called an incinerator, referring to it instead as a waste-to-energy facility. That's not just a euphemism, he said, because the trash that's burned is converted to enough electric power to run 7,000 to 10,000 homes.

The county sells the energy the facility produces to Progress Energy, Bazzle said. But the generator in the facility is not large enough to convert to energy all of the steam produced from burning the trash. The facility, which opened in 1989, was originally designed to produce power and transfer some steam to the former Navy Base, which sits near the facility in North Charleston.

The base closed in 1995, but the Navy is still paying the county about $5 million per year to purchase steam because it signed a 20-year contract when the facility opened, Gregg Varner, Charleston County solid waste director said.

The Navy simply vents the steam into the air, Bazzle said, because it has no use for it since the base closed.

Varner said Wednesday that he needed more time to provide information on how much the county pays Montenay to run the facility and how much it brings in by selling the energy it produces.

But, he said that even with a larger generator, "the sum total of energy revenue will go down some" without the Navy steam contract.

Bazzle said he thinks the incinerator is often blamed for much more than its share of the air pollution in the heavily industrial Charleston Neck Area. "There's a perception in the neighborhood that we're the culprit for many things we're not the cause of," he said.

But he admits that such a facility brings noise and odor from many trash trucks rumbling through nearby neighborhoods. And, he said, "I sympathize with Howard Heights," the neighborhood closest to the facility.

But, he said, Montenay monitors the air 24 hours a day, and the Environmental Protection Agency says the facility is more environmentally friendly than a landfill.

Varner said the decision on whether to continue using the facility will fall to County Council.

North Charleston Councilman Teddie Pryor said, "I'm definitely in favor of closing the incinerator. The people have suffered for 20 long years." Council had decided last year to close the facility in 2010, he said, but then decided instead to take an overall look at trash disposal and create a long-term plan.

He said he's certain that there are other council members opposed to extending the contract for the incinerator. But he's not sure whether the majority is opposed.

Bazzle said the waste-to-energy industry "had its heyday in the 1980s but there's been a recent resurgence." In Europe, he said, there's been an explosion of such facilities.

He contends that with an improved air pollution system that prevents more particles from being released into the air, the facility is safer than a landfill.

"I bring my 3-year-old son to work with me twice a week," he said.