A Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued by the city on Tuesday, March 6th, for a waste-to-energy conversion facility to be built on one of nine possible sites—two of which lie along Newtown Creek. The proposed plant is part of the city’s large scale PlaNYC project to divert a share of NYC’s 10,000+ daily tons of garbage away from landfills.
Is it cause for concern? Too early to tell. The waste-to-energy (WTE) facility could be one of two types: thermal or non-thermal, depending on what the city is seeking (their RFP was ambiguous), as well as which companies submit compelling proposals.
Thermal WTE facilities include gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma incinerators, all of which functionally resemble classic incinerators. However, unlike antiquated “mass burn” incinerators, these three processes recover energy in the form of electricity or heat. Although thermal WTE technology is nowhere near as insulting to air quality as old-fashioned burn-houses, garbage is combusted nonetheless, producing incidental pollutants. Some are coughed out into the air and some accumulate in solid residue, known as slag. While greatly improved, thermal WTE facilities contribute low levels of the same environmental emissions and collateral health risks as their “mass burn” parents. For this reason, European Union (EU) regulations currently classify the gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma processes under the heading: “incinerators.”
While testifying against the plant before the New York City Council last October, Michael Schade of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) alleged “[The] incinerator industry has tried to expand their sector by marketing their facilities as ‘Waste to Energy’.”
Non-thermal conversion methods include anaerobic digestion and acid hydrolysis. Anaerobic digestion uses microorganisms to decompose bio-waste, begetting methane. Acid hydrolysis degrades wood and paper-based refuse into sugar, which then can be fermented into ethanol. These facilities are far less ominous than their thermal counterparts, though their efficacy is largely limited to organic waste.
The City’s Phase 3 site study rated the old Phelps Dodge Refinery on 57th Ave along Newtown Creek in Maspeth “acceptable” as a potential site. The current National Grid location on Varick Avenue and Lombardy Street was rated “advantageous or highly advantageous”.
“I am very concerned to learn this information,” said Assemblyman Joe Lentol. “I will investigate this further and begin contacting the appropriate officials.”
Consensus on these new generation incinerators is elusive if it exists at all. Many compact European nations, namely Denmark, Sweden, and Luxembourg, are departing out of necessity from the dead-end fix of landfills. Without the American convenience of seemingly endless landfill space, they have successfully embraced the new waste management technology head-on. So far, so good.
The Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA) suggested that WTE facilities operate “best within a system where waste is heavily regulated – where toxics, plastics and metals are aggressively diverted.” The NCA contends that the European countries mentioned are examples of this, but New York is not.
At their March 13th meeting, Community Board 1’s Executive Board resolved to challenge the placement of an incinerator in its district, regardless of type, citing the city’s long history of placing similar projects in the community.
In his October testimony, Schade also stated “even the most technologically advanced incinerators today release highly toxic pollutants harmful to public health like dioxin, lead and mercury that contaminate our air, soil and water.”