Central Landfill Keeps R.I. Incinerator Debate Alive

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The seemingly annual debate about building a waste incinerator in Rhode Island resolved little on the issue this year, except that any such facility is too expensive and likely at least 10 years from ever being built.

The sole advocate for considering an incinerator is the operator of the Central Landfill in Johnston, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC). The agency simply wants to take a hard look at an incinerator as it investigates options for the state’s waste when the landfill inevitably runs out of space.

Currently, state law prohibits RIRRC from owning and operating an incinerator and from even considering it for its comprehensive plan. A pending bill would void the prohibition on studying incineration. It also would remove language in the state law that says incineration is the most expensive method of waste disposal.

“Removing this language is not consent to build,” Sarah Kite, RIRRC’s director of recycling services, said during a Feb. 26 Statehouse hearing. “This is not giving us permission to do anything other than really intensely study this issue and to bring those recommendations back to this board.”

Kite admitted that incinerators, also called a waste-to-energy facilities, are money losers and require extensive environmental scrutiny. A need for one might be years away, she said, and only after RIRRC maximizes its recycling and waste-reduction efforts and the landfill reaches capacity for burying trash — a prospect, she noted, that is 23 or 24 years away.

Any incinerator, she presumed, would likely be a small facility that burns a modest volume of the trash — material that can’t be reused, recycled, repaired or composted.

“We’re not talking about building a massive anything right now,” Kite said.

Opponents say there is no evidence showing that incinerators are cost effective and safe. These facilities also typically require large volumes of waste to meet electricity generation obligations, according to opponents.

An RIRRC analysis from six years ago estimated that an incinerator in Rhode Island would cost some $400 million. To pay for it, the tipping fee, or the cost to cities and towns to deposit a ton of trash in the landfill, would increase from $32 to more than $100.

Jamie Rhodes, president of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), an advocacy group of more than 60 environmental organizations and environmentalists, said the existing ban is intended to send a signal to potential developers and the waste industry that incinerators aren’t viable.

“When (the ban) says it’s the most expensive form of waste management, that’s still the case. We haven’t seen an indication of anything else,” Rhodes said.

Meg Kerr, director of Rhode Island Clean Water Action, noted that environmental groups worked for years to pass laws that put limits on incinerators — and for good reason. A 2011 waste study at six incinerators in Massachusetts revealed that 65 percent of the burned material was recyclable or compostable.

“Allowing incineration or beginning to think about it undermines ... all the efforts we’ve been doing to reduce waste,” she said.

Rhode Island has incinerators in Cranston and Woonsocket that burn residue from sewage treatment plants. Rhode Island hospitals stopped burning waste in the 1990s, according to the state Department of Environmental Management.

Massachusetts has seven incinerators, and Connecticut has six. An incinerator hasn’t been built in the United States in more than 20 years, according to Kite.

Jerry Elmer, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), said RIRRC shouldn’t be considering an incinerator when it is already associated with a waste-to-energy facility. The landfill gas company Broadrock Gas Services is drawing methane from the landfill to fuel its 33-megawatt power plant. Elmer noted that the facility has repeatedly broken air pollution rules, prompting CLF to file a lawsuit in 2013 against Broadrock and RIRRC for violating clean air regulations.

“The General Assembly has not assured that (the) landfill can operate properly so as to avoid impacts to public health and the environment and yet time and again it considers allowing a different air pollution generating approach to landfill management,” Elmer wrote in a prepared statement.

Elmer said the bill is the fifth legislative effort to overturn the ban on incinerators since the ban was approved more than 20 years ago.

The bill was held for further study.