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County Commissioners Hear Update On Future Of Incinerator

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners voted earlier this week to begin negotiations with a private company to rehabilitate and manage their waste to energy facility.


Managing Editor
NEW HANOVER CTY - Trash disposal is going to get more expensive in New Hanover County. The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved negotiating a contract with New Jersey based Covanta Energy to renovate and operate the County's incinerator formerly called WASTEC. 
That facility was shutdown last year. At issue was what to do about the aging and failing WASTEC Incinerator and the associated financial impacts as well as the life of the County's landfill. The incinerator was often out of service for various issues and was in need of repairs and improvements.
It was costing the County about $500,000 per month to operate the facility. They had budgeted for a private company to take over control of the incinerator and landfill, but that deal never materialized and the county was faced with a budget shortfall.
Built in 1983, the facility was the first waste-to-energy plant constructed in North Carolina and one of the first small cogeneration plants in the nation.
The plant is designed to burn waste to ash thus reducing volume in the county landfill while also generating electricity. 
An engineering firm hired to examine the facility determined that years of required maintenance had not been done. They compared the incinerator to a vehicle that's run non-stop year round for years; eventually it needs major repairs.
Covanta proposes to rehabilitate the plant over a 15-month period at a cost of around $27 million dollars. Then they would operate the facility for around twelve to thirteen million dollars a year. 
County staff tasked with researching the proposal say tipping fees may increase from $59 per ton of refuse to $93 dollars per ton in order to fund the project and continued operation of the facility. The increased fees would ensure continued proper maintenance.
County Commissioner Rick Catlin said he was concerned about new technologies and new regulations down the road. Part of the proposal says Covanta would not pay for improvements that are a result of new regulations. 
Assistant County Manager Chris Coudriet said, "That point is not lost... the reality is we have a real problem today and the best available technology at a price that is certain and we know the technology that works is mass burn. We've got an asset there. If we delay four or five years in landfill, certainly there is an impact. We are nearing the life of the existing permitted area. We think there is six years on that. But, a green field development of a waste energy facility or something akin to it, easily, in four or five years could be $280 to $300 million dollars. My contention earlier was if we waited through the life of the contract, lost our optionality and then tried to build a new green field facility in 20 years I think it would be upwards I think of $500 to $600 million dollars."
He explained, "There is an asset we have that can be operated efficiently that's going to be operated by the industry leader in this. It will give you certainty and predictability in cost going forward and it's the best available technology to New Hanover County."
County Commission Chairman Ted Davis said, "There are a lot of ifs" involved with predicting new technology down the road. 
Catlin said the facility was built correctly and, "Was manned by people that new what they were doing. It was not funded adequately by elected officials during that time. Part of that was a loss of flow control which caused us to be competitive and we didn't put it back."
Catlin was referring to a situation a number of years ago when the county had to lower rates in order to ensure haulers used the incinerator verses hauling trash to other distant landfills. Later when that issue was resolved with more control by the County, the tipping fees were not increased to return to a level adequate to fund proper maintenance of the facility. 
He explained, "It is hard as an elected official... to fund things that need to be maintained. Just look at our water and sewer system and now the burden we have with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority" due to aging pipes that now have to be replaced using higher water and sewer rates. 
He explained, "It is difficult to make those tough decisions and what we are looking at now is not going to be subject to that. It's going to be operated and maintained by a private company that will operate off the tip fees and will not be subject to political influences that could starve it to death and recreate the problem that we had before."
The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to direct county staff to negotiate with Covanta and return with a contract at their July meeting. 
Chairman Davis said he's heard feedback from people urging them not to raise fees, but hopes they will understand that one day in the future the landfill will be gone and the incinerator helps prolong that date. 
He said, "When it is, no one is going to give us a deal when it comes to where were are going to put that trash or how much it will cost to get it there" and, "The longer I can help to put that off the more I think I'm helping the people in the future."