By David Abel | GLOBE STAFF | May 11, 2009
SAUGUS -- With its two boilers brewing fires at more than 2,200 degrees, the massive incinerator along Bear Creek burns 1,500 tons of trash a day, mounds of which are hauled to the aging plant on tractor-trailers and deposited in an 85-foot-deep pit piled high with soggy cardboard, ripped plastic, and loads of other refuse.
In addition to generating enough electricity to power 47,000 homes a day, the incinerator - one of seven left in the state - releases a constant plume of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and an awful, nose-burning stench.
``Ah, the smell of money,'' John O'Rourke, the incinerator's plant manager, joked during a recent tour.
For the first time in 15 years, environmental officials are considering whether to end the state's moratorium on new incinerators. As part of their effort to revise the state's solid-waste master plan and reduce the 1.5 million tons a year of trash exported from Massachusetts, environmental officials have held meetings around the state over the past six months to seek public comments about whether to revise regulations that have prohibited new incinerators and the expansion of existing plants since 1994.
Over the years, to the chagrin of environmental groups, waste management companies have lobbied aggressively to lift the ban, arguing that new technology significantly reduces emissions and that it's better to burn the trash and collect the resulting energy than dump it in the state's rapidly filling landfills or ship it out of state, sometimes as far as South Carolina.
``The more waste-to-energy plants, the more likely we will reduce overall pollution, because it would mean not having to burn as much coal or oil for electricity,'' said Frank Ferraro, a spokesman for Wheelabrator Technologies, which operates the incinerator in Saugus as well as two others in North Andover and Millbury, all of which provide enough electricity to power more than 150,000 homes a day. ``If you increase the capacity of a waste-to-energy plant, you make more electricity that doesn't have to be created elsewhere; you're not going to have the carbon pollution from transporting it out of state; and we recover metals from the combustion ash.
``There are not enough landfills or waste-to-energy plants,'' he said. ``So the state should have the choice of exploring all options.''
But environmental officials have decried the efforts to end the moratorium, arguing that new incinerators, however improved technologically, would contribute more pollution and hamper more environmentally sound plans to reduce the state's waste. They say allowing new plants would encourage more incineration of waste and stifle incentives to recycle.
They also note that the state already incinerates about one-quarter of the 12 million tons of waste it produces a year - significantly above the average 7 percent of trash burned nationwide.
``Once you get an incinerator, it's a self-perpetuating thing,'' said Lynne Pledger, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Sierra Club. ``It needs a tremendous amount of trash to stay operating and to be economical for the operator. Incinerators lock communities into trash contracts, and much of what could be recycled gets burned.''
Pledger and other environmentalists recently started Don't Waste Massachusetts, an organization that supports the moratorium. Instead of burning more trash, they argue, the state should focus on reducing waste and boosting recycling. They say recycling produces three to five times more energy than incinerating trash.
The state's overall recycling rate for municipal waste stands at about 37 percent, up just 3 percent since 2000, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
``Reducing waste and recycling are clear winners over incineration in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, and protecting public health and the environment,'' said Shanna Cleveland, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. ``The incinerator moratorium was imposed to protect Massachusetts residents from hazardous air pollutants emitted from incinerators. Until there is compelling evidence that new waste-to-energy technologies have solved the problem of toxic emissions, it makes no sense to lift the existing ban.''
State officials said that they're reviewing the new technologies, some of which are used in Europe, and that they will decide over the next few weeks whether ending the moratorium will be a part of the solid-waste master plan they expect to propose this summer.
They said Massachusetts already strictly controls incinerator emissions and, in some cases, has more stringent regulations than the federal government. The state, for example, permits less than half of what the US Environmental Protection Agency allows for mercury emissions.
They also noted that the moratorium allows Wheelabrator Technologies and Covanta Energy, which owns the state's other four incinerators, to have a monopoly on trash-burning plants and inhibits them or others from innovating.
``I feel obligated to reexamine this issue,'' said Laurie Burt, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. ``But I'm not prepared to tell you where we're coming out.''
She added: ``We're looking at how to increase recycling, but what do we do with what's left?''
Some communities exploring the same question have sought the state's approval to bypass the ban by reclassifying some of the new technologies, so they're not considered incinerators.
In Taunton, where the local landfill will be capped in 2013, city officials are seeking the state's blessing to build a $100 million solid-waste plant that would use ``thermal conversion'' technology they say doesn't technically burn the trash and produces 90 percent fewer emissions than existing incinerators.
They say they will continue to encourage recycling, but they argue that the state can't recycle all its waste and that too much of what is recycled ends up in landfills.
``The recycling utopia will never exist,'' said Steve Torres, city solicitor of Taunton. ``When the recycling market is stagnant, a lot of the papers and plastics and cardboards are landfilled, and you get nothing for them. Landfills end the beneficial life of a useful product, and we think it's better they are used for their energy value than become buried.''
But opponents of lifting the ban argue that there's little evidence that the new technology reduces emissions as much as supporters say and that it promotes the wrong public policy. They also argue that the companies running incinerators might start trucking in trash from outside the state to keep their facilities running at full pace.
``Allowing the new incineration technology is absolutely the wrong direction,'' said Eugene B. Benson, legal counsel for Alternatives for Community & Environment in Roxbury. ``It really looks at the problem backwards. The state needs a much more robust program for recycling and to create markets for recycling products. We don't want a competition between burning or recycling materials. But if you build these new incinerators, you'll have more of a market for burning, and it will make it more difficult to create a recycling market.''
In Saugus, which has the state's oldest incinerator, John O'Rourke explained how the plant's 57 workers funnel the trash from rat-infested heaps to the giant incinerators and how the heat produces steam and turns a turbine that connects to the grid.
As one of the 34-year-old plant's 80-foot cranes moved overhead, a steel claw grappled four tons of trash at a time, audibly crushing glass, bending metal, and releasing a rain of cardboard, plastic, wood, everything from tires to mangled furniture.
``There's a lot of electricity that will be created,'' he said.
But he added: ``There's also a lot in there you probably could recycle.''
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.