If County Shuts Trash Incinerator, What Next?

If County Shuts Trash Incinerator, What Next?

Leaders vow to close Dickerson plant but haven’t settled on what to do with rubbish

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Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and his new Department of Environmental Protection director are adamant about wanting to close the county’s trash incinerator.

But even with ongoing efforts to reduce rubbish by boosting recycling, the leaders aren’t sure what would happen to the tons of solid waste that are burned at the Dickerson plant each day if it closes.

The plant, which opened in 1995, processes 600,000 tons per year, according Covanta, the company that operates the incinerator and the Shady Grove trash transfer station in Derwood, under a contract that expires in April 2021.

The county recycled 740,130 tons of materials in 2017, according to the DEP, and the county’s composting facility in Dickerson can process 77,000 tons of material per year.

Elrich said during a news conference last month, and during his campaign for county executive, that he didn’t want to rely further on landfills for storing trash. Although the county’s two landfills closed in the last century, ash from the Dickerson incinerator is shipped by rail to a landfill in Virginia, and non-processable waste is shipped to a landfill in Pennsylvania.

An 820-acre area in Dickerson known as “Site 2” has been designated as a contingency site if a landfill were needed.

Elrich has said he wants to close the Dickerson incinerator by 2022, and his spokesman Ohene Gyapong said the county executive currently does not have an alternative plan for the trash.

“He’s open to and researching alternatives,” Gyapong said.

Adam Ortiz, who was confirmed last week to lead the environmental department, said that he too wasn’t sure what the alternative would be.

“That’s a great question, and a tough question for my first week,” he said. “It’s gonna take some homework.”

Asked about the proposal of shipping Montgomery County’s excess trash to other jurisdictions, Ortiz declined to speculate on whether it was a viable alternative.

“It’s premature for me to say. We’d really have to study the different scenarios,” he said.

The future of waste disposal in Montgomery County comes amid debates nationwide over whether municipalities should continue sending garbage to landfills, recycle more or opt for reducing the amount of waste produced.

A study conducted last year by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on behalf of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association found that the incinerator was the second highest source of pollution in the county, emitting more than 500,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year.

The study recommended hauling residual trash to landfills in Virginia that are accessible by freight rail. CSX trains currently transport the ash from the Dickerson plant to Virginia.

Combined with increasing the percentage of recycled materials to 70 percent, the think tank’s study estimated that the county could save more than $60 million per year.

The Sugarloaf Citizens Association unsuccessfully sued the county in the early 1990s to prevent the construction of the Dickerson facility, along the Potomac River, which sells the power it generates from burning trash to Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO).

Amy Maron, the “zero waste lead” for the Montgomery County Sierra Club, said her organization supports Elrich’s initiative to close down the incinerator. She said the county needs to have a “comprehensive strategy” when it comes to reducing its trash intake that explores how to produce less waste.

Maron said that more composting and recycling must be part of the solution in the short term.

“Food waste is the largest component of the incinerator. It is ridiculous that so much food is being thrown in there,” she said.

Maron said the county should begin a “fix-it” clinic program, as has been done in New York State and Minnesota, where volunteers fix small appliances such as toasters for a small fee or no fee.

She also said the county also needs to expand its recycling program to include larger materials, such as mattresses and carpets.

“When was the last time we got a mailing about what can be recycled?” she said.

Maron acknowledged, despite these efforts, that some of the trash “will need to go to landfills” in the short term, with the long-term goal of getting manufacturers to create more reusable products.

Ortiz said during his previous job as the director of Prince George’s County’s Department of the Environment, the county’s landfill had an informal agreement with Montgomery County businesses to accept some compost.

“We ended up including a lot of food scraps from Montgomery County,” he said.

There are 22 locations throughout the county where residents may pick up compost bins. The composting plant is adjacent to the incinerator in Dickerson and produces Leafgro compost, which is commonly used for soil enrichment.

Asked about the proposal of shipping Montgomery County’s excess trash to other jurisdictions, Ortiz declined to speculate on whether it was a viable alternative.

“It’s premature for me to say. We’d really have to study the different scenarios,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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