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(The Possible Bankruptcy of Marion County . . . )
Like the entire industrialized world, Marion County has an unresolved problem with waste management. In a controversial decision 14 years ago, Marion County Commissioners decided to build the solid waste incinerator in Brooks, just north of Salem next to I-5. Since then, decisions and actions of county officials and plant administrators seem disingenuous and I have become quite skeptical regarding their motives, their financial relationships with each other, and their systems of gathering data proving plant safety and public health.
Four years ago, with no public input, Marion County Commissioners voted to extend the contract with the plant operators, Ogden-Martin (OM), to operate the incinerator for an additional 10 years beyond the original 20 year contract. The contract requires Marion County to supply 145 thousand tons of trash per year to burn. If the county doesn't supply it, ratepayers (thats us) still pay operating costs and OM can import whatever type of trash they want to incinerate to make up the difference.
One problem I see is that any rigorous program to recycle, reduce or reuse our waste directly competes with the OM contract. Who negotiated that contract? Randall Franke was a member of the Marion County Commissioners at that time. Remember that name.
We've been told for the past 14 years that the smokestack emissions and ash pile from the solid waste incinerator are safe and meet federal guidelines. Recently, these EPA guidelines have become stricter and the incinerator can no longer legally emit the 500-800 pounds of mercury per year that they have been allowed for the past 14 years. The public, through trash fees, has payed about $2.5 million to "fix" this mercury emission problem. Mercury will no longer be discharged at levels previously seen from the smokestack. And thats good.
But the mercury hasnt magically gone away. Instead, it is now in the incinerator ash. So now we may have an ash problem, similar to Coos Bay, a community with a similar incinerator. They recently put a scrubber on their system to control emissions (in their case, lead rather than mercury). As a result, their fly ash is so toxic (with lead and cadmium) that it must be moved to Arlington's toxic waste dump in eastern Oregon, at a cost to the county of $265/ton.
What this all points to is the fact that the EPAs standards are becoming more strict because of public health concerns. Retrofitting these old incinerators to comply is an expensive business for which rate payers are responsible. This also points to that old question, what health risks are we being exposed to today that will be considered toxic tomorrow? Dioxins? We know theyre in the emissions and the ash of Marion Countys incinerator. We know theyre toxic at any level. Yet were told theres no problem with them being introduced into Marion County by this plant...But thats another story.
Deal with the Devil
In real estate, it is prudent to look at comparables to get a realistic idea of the value of a deal. Using that same principle to analyze Marion Countys deal with solid waste disposal presents a revealing, if disconcerting picture. Consider this: other communities that brought in incinerators operated by OM, with contracts similar to ours, are now realizing they've made a horrible mistake.
Lake County, southern FloridaRecycling is competing with incineration there. As they've reduced their waste stream through recycling and composting, they've been forced contractually to import medical waste and plastics (both very toxic, resulting in greater pollution with heavy metals and dioxin) to comply with their contract with OM. To the insult of increased pollution must be added the injury of a burdensome financial lossthe county's contractual costs are $74/ton, yet they receive as little as $16/ton for the imported waste.
From this story, we can infer that recycling in Florida is bad because it doesnt support OMs bottom line. How do you feel about a corporation dictating such terms here in Oregon?
Warren County, New JerseyThey too have felt the sting of OM. Recent Supreme Court decisions make it illegal for counties to control the flow of solid waste. Haulers are now allowed to take the garbage to cheaper landfills and recycling facilities. Warren County is now poised for backruptcy and may default on bond debts of $77 million because, by contract, they are compelled to continue paying OM $6 million per year to operate the incinerator even though the county has been forced to lower rates to stay competitive. Warren County has no say in where OM gets the outside trash to make up for lost incinerator trash flow. OM is refusing to renegotiate the contract, leaving Warren County twisting in the wind.
Warren Countys nightmare could soon be Marion Countys day job.