Philadelphia Trash: Too Much And Nowhere To Go

New York Times

March 9, 1986

Section 1; Part 2, Page 48, Column 1

By WILLIAM K. STEVENS, Special to the New York Times


On some mornings, 25 or 30 yellow trash-collection trucks line up at the gate of the municipal incinerator in northwestern Philadelphia, one of two in the city. At the other end of the lot, dump trucks pull away with steaming loads of ashes, bound for some faraway landfill.

The landfills are not only increasingly distant, they are also increasingly scarce. Consequently, Philadelphia has been scrambling desperately to find some place to dump the residue of burned trash.

As it scrambles, a Mount Everest of ash has risen behind the incinerator. Power shovels chip away at it, but the task is truly Augean, and the city is on the verge of running out of space for the ashes.

Philadelphia, despite its charms, has a trash crisis. Many of its own citizens, according to recent polls, consider it the dirtiest city in the country. Now it seems about to choke on its own refuse, and no early solution is in sight.

Incinerators Not Enough

As landfills fill up, many cities in the Northeast and elsewhere are seeking alternative means of trash disposal. But, ”the fact is, we are unique in that we don’t have any final disposal facilities anywhere within our city limits,” said Harry M. Perks, the city’s streets commissioner, who is responsible for trash collection and disposal.

Thirty years ago, when Philadelphia built its incinerators in what was then considered a progressive step, it got rid of its landfills. As the city’s daily load of trash grew, and the incinerators proved to be insufficient, it had to seek places outside the city to dump both ashes and unburned waste. But now, with one community after another saying ”No,” Philadelphia has barely been able to keep ahead of the avalanche of refuse, and several times recently has seemed about to be overwhelmed.

A little more than a year ago, Gloucester County in New Jersey, across the Delaware from Philadelphia, closed its huge Kinsley landfill to all outsiders, saying it needed all of the land. Philadelphia had been dumping more than 40 percent of its trash there. Now 22 percent of the city’s trash is disposed of at the two city incinerators and then taken to landfills. The rest is taken to landfills in suburban towns and to a trash-to-steam plant in Baltimore.

Last June the city had to stop shipping incinerator ashes to the Norris Farm landfill near Baltimore because the landfill did not meet Maryland’s environmental standards, and was closed. Some of the ash, about 400 tons a day, was subsequently hauled to a site on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but community resistance there in late January brought on an injunction halting the shipments. #600 Tons With Nowhere to Go Last week, the Baltimore trash-to-steam plant announced that come July, it would not renew a contract under which it had been taking 600 tons a day of Philadelphia trash.

”It’s just one more nail in our coffin,” Mr. Perks said.

Earlier this week, with the ash mountain steadily rising at the Northwest Incinerator, a contractor in charge of its disposal finally secured an emergency 30-day agreement to dump the ashes at landfills near East Liverpool, Ohio, 350 miles away. The contractor had searched for a dumping spot as far afield as South Carolina, Georgia and West Virginia. All of this has sharply increased costs to the city, which now amount to $43 million a year.

But by the end of the week public protest in the Ohio town had caused the landfill owner there to refuse to extend the contract beyond the 30 days.

When Philadelphia was shut out of the Kinsley landfill in New Jersey, thereby starting the series of events leading to the present crisis, the city undertook a long-range plan to revamp and modernize its trash-disposal system. The heart of the plan was to be a trash-to-steam plant, to be built at the Philadelphia Navy yard, for converting refuse into energy.

Mayor’s Role Is Criticized

Community opposition in South Philadelphia, adjacent to the Navy Yard, led the City Council to kill the project in January 1985. A recent report by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce took Mayor W. Wilson Goode to task for allowing the project to die. ”We feel Wilson just did not stand up to the Council,” said G. Fred DiBona Jr., the president of the chamber. ”The governance of the city acted out of politics and didn’t have the guts to make a tough decision.”

The Chamber of Commerce is expected to begin pressing soon for a reconsideration of the Philadelphia Navy Yard site for the plant. ”You don’t control your own destiny by having it somewhere else,” Mr. DiBona said.

Two months ago, Mayor Goode announced that the trash-to-steam plant would be built near Morgantown in rural Berks County. It would accommodate about a third of the city’s trash, said Mr. Perks, nearly making up for the loss of the Kinsley landfill.

But some people in Berks County, who believe they should not have to handle Philadelphia’s mess, are opposing the plant. ”Most communities don’t want their own waste, let alone an outsider’s waste,” Mr. Perks said.

Plans to Fight Facility

Opponents in Berks County formed an organization, called Evergreen, to fight the facility. A spokesman for Evergreen, John Burdy, said this week that the group would take legal action if necessary. ”We feel that the zoning laws were completely bypassed,” said Mr. Burdy, adding that the permit for the facility was issued without proper public notice.

The company that would build and operate the trash-to-steam plant under a tentative agreement with the city contends that fears about unhealthy emissions from the plant are unfounded. ”We have the ability to reduce particulates and acid gas far below state and Federal standards,” said David Sokol, the president of the Ogden-Martin Corporation of Paramus, N.J., which would build the Berks plant.

In apparent recognition that trash-to-steam and recycling are the wave of the future in the post-landfill era, Pennsylvania state legislators have introduced a bill aimed at promoting such solutions. Landfill owners would be taxed to help provide funds for new waste-management systems. And in an attempt to avoid the ”not-in-my-backyard” syndrome, county governments would be empowered to overrule municipal governments in selecting sites for trash-to-steam plants.

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