Good investment turns to ashes

Closing of incinerator will lead to other issues

PUBLISHED REPORTS to the contrary, the apparent reason the city manager is closing down the Resource Recovery facility (RR), commonly known as “the incinerator,” is a shortfall of just $2.2 million over budget in 2009 and an unwillingness to accept the reality that energy policy will be changing in Georgia over the next six years that would increase revenues from Georgia Power above current projections.

With scant time left before the contract runs out, and admitting a certain amount of costs and confusion, city council could still vote to reopen the waste-to-energy facility.

There is no loss for irony in the recent vote by city council to close the incinerator instead of renewing the contract for 15 years. Last April, they voted to transform it into a generator of at least 64 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year – enough to supply all the electricity needs of from 5,500-6,000 homes – for the next 15 years, at a worse-case cost of 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour.

(To put that amount in perspective, it is less than the cost of nuclear power. If the city could get an extra penny per kilowatt hour, revenues would jump $608,000 per year.)

But instead, the present landfill will receive 90,000 tons of garbage annually.

Consider these facts:

• The last payment of the total cost of $88 million (principal and interest) to finance the facility was made in 2006; and the facility has a useful life of an additional 20 years;

• Following an on-site review in December 2007, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which monitors quarterly compliance reports, issued an operating permit good for an additional 10 years;

• The proposed 13 megawatt electric turbine has a useful life of 35 years;

• The operating company (Veolia) agrees to invest $10 million to maintain the facility as state-of-the-art.

Yet, after all that investment, and all that potential, the city closes it down.

In a tough job and real-estate market, most of the 42 employees are out of work. A few will be relocated; most of those with professional licenses and highly specialized skills will have to find work out of town – with the resultant loss to the local economy of $2 million a year.

All of the local waste haulers will have to increase charges to many of their customers as over 400 tons currently hauled monthly to the RR for a tipping fee of $1 will now go to commercial landfills at tipping fees over $20 a ton.

The highly vocal local businessmen, mostly restaurant and fast-food operators, who complained they were being charged too much by the city, will probably save less than 50 percent, according to one of the haulers.

The county commissioners, who recently passed a resolution to make Chatham County the greenest county in the state, were blind-sided — as were the residents of Southbridge and Garden City that are in close proximity to the landfill. The county manager, for example, first read about it in the daily newspaper.

From 2009 on, the boosters of recycling will take 6,000-7,000 tons of refuse out of the waste stream, but each year over 90,000 tons of city collected garbage will be hauled to the landfill; 18,000 tons of yard waste and tree trimmings will have to be hauled to another site, and over 100,000 tons of commercial waste will be trucked to landfills as far away as Jesup.

Tens of thousands of Savannah residents will now have to separate their yard waste and tree trimmings for a third separate trash pickup.

The ultimate irony: Unless steps are taken now, waste-to-energy will be lost by Earth Day.

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