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Bill would end R.I. incinerator ban

 

State Rep. Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket, has proposed a bill that would overturn Rhode Island's 20-year incinerator ban and facilitate the creation of a waste-to-energy plant in Woonsocket.

The new plant would create an estimated 1,500 construction jobs, and many of Woonsocket's elected officials support its construction.

"I am pretty much against the landfills," said state Rep. Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, one of the bill's sponsors. He said Central Landfill - the only public landfill in Rhode Island - bothers residents of Johnston and Cranston with its odor, adding that incineration presents an alternative to burying trash.

Rhode Island became the first state to ban incinerators in 1992. "We thought they were unhealthy," said state Rep. John Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton, who serves on the Special Joint Commission to Study Waste-to-Energy Incineration. "They release carcinogens into the air, and they leave toxic residue."

No new incinerators have been built in the United States in the past 15 years, but waste-to-energy technology has gotten greener, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A 2009 study found that waste-to-energy reduces pollutants and produces nine times as much energy as landfills do.

Harold Ward, professor of environmental studies, disagreed with the EPA's findings. A well-run incinerator is better for the environment than a poorly run landfill, he said, "but I don't think it's likely to be done right."

Historically, waste-to-energy plants have been more expensive than landfilling. "My community where I lived in New Hampshire signed an agreement with an incinerator company," said Jonathan Scott, acting communications director for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group that has taken a leading role in the fight against incinerators in Rhode Island. "For 15 years, we had to pay outrageously high rates per ton to dispose of our trash, and we had to deliver a certain amount or see those per ton rates go up even higher."

To help finance incineration, the bill would categorize the Woonsocket plant as a source of renewable energy, like solar power and wind power, making it eligible for government subsidies. 

"I suppose in some weird way it is renewable," Ward said. "But I don't think it's what the renewable energy subsidy is intended to accomplish."

Brien introduced similar bills in 2010 and 2011, but they were fiercely opposed by environmentalists. Members of the Audobon Society, Sierra Club and Environmental Council of Rhode Island passed out fliers and packed city hall meetings in Woonsocket, but neither bill passed the state's House of Representatives. 

"I don't think there's a whole lot of will in the General Assembly to have waste-to-energy in Rhode Island," Edwards said.

Ward argued that the state could continue to use Central Landfill as a disposal site. 

Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the organization that manages the state's waste, paid $5 million a decade in fines and costs of updating the facility when the EPA found that Central Landfill was in violation of the Clean Air Act, Ward said. The landfill still emits fumes due to a failure in the methane collection system, though it now operates in compliance with the CAA

In place of incineration, the technology at Central Landfill could be further updated to control emissions, Ward said. 




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