S.C. legislators are being asked to loosen state rules so a New Jersey company can build a $450 million garbage incinerator in jobs-hungry Chester County.
The change would let Covanta Energy burn substantially more trash than is now allowed in South Carolina - including garbage from other states, such as North Carolina.
Covanta's proposal has touched off a debate in South Carolina among environmentalists, Chester County industrial recruiters and politicians over the benefits of a trash incinerator near Fort Lawn, just west of the Catawba River
Supporters of the project say Covanta's "waste-to-energy" facility will create up to 500 construction jobs and 55 permanent positions - paying about $60,000 - in a county with an unemployment rate of 22 percent.
The incinerator would be used to create electricity as America seeks new sources of energy. And it would reduce the need for new landfills, which can leak contaminants into groundwater, Covanta and its backers say.
"It's a great idea," said Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, one of the state's biggest landfill critics.
But a major unknown looms large in the debate: how much toxic air pollution the waste-to-energy plant will produce. Mercury, dioxin and carbon dioxide are among the pollutants that typically come from such facilities. Mercury can cause nervous system disorders, while dioxin can cause cancer. Carbon dioxide contributes to global warming.
Questions also center on the flow of out-of-state garbage to South Carolina, a state with a history of taking the nation's refuse.
One of the company's ideas is to bring waste from the Charlotte area to fuel the incinerator. And the site near Chester is adjacent to rail, which makes shipment from other states easier, critics say.
South Carolina law now limits companies to incinerating no more than 600 tons of garbage per day. Covanta's plan is to increase the limit to 1,600 tons per day for its facility. Spread over a year's time, that would increase the amount of burning allowed from 219,000 tons to 585,000 tons.
"They're looking to use little South Carolina as a place to unload their garbage," said Susan Corbett, a top official with the state Sierra Club. "We don't want that stigma."
Paul Gilman, a senior vice president with Covanta, said his company can't afford to bring waste from long distances to Chester County. The company can't make money by charging low disposal fees that would attract waste from states far away, Gilman said.
"The economics of building a facility like this and trying to attract imported waste just doesn't work," Gilman said, explaining that his company will compete with landfill corporations for a slice of the garbage pie in South Carolina.
For much of the past two months, Covanta has quietly pitched its plan to state regulators, newspaper editors, environmentalists and lawmakers - including Scott and Sen. Creighton Coleman, whose district includes Chester County.
A draft bill prepared at Coleman's request has been circulated in the Legislature, and the company predicts formal legislation will be introduced soon. Covanta officials want to start construction in the fall and operate the new plant by 2014.
Officials met Thursday with Coleman and environmental groups in an attempt to ease any concerns. Conservation groups are expected at the State House this morning to lobby lawmakers against the Covanta plant.
"A $450 million investment sure is going to help Chester County, but we need to look at environmental issues, too," Coleman, D-Fairfield, said.
NEW WAY TO CREATE ENERGY
Covanta's incinerator would be the only one of its kind in South Carolina, but commercial waste incinerators aren't new to the Palmetto State.
Three major S.C. incinerators that burned toxic or medical waste have closed since 1995 because of concerns about air pollution. Last year, Charleston County officials shuttered an aging incinerator that burned garbage, also because of pollution worries. Before that, officials in York County turned down Covanta's offer to locate the company's waste-to-energy plant there, citing similar concerns.
Gilman said a modern waste-to-energy plant is more efficient at controlling pollution and burning waste than the old incinerators. Modern plants include bag houses that act like giant vacuum cleaner bags to catch pollutants. Operators also inject carbon to reduce mercury.
"In our world, incinerators are a very different beast than a waste-to-energy facility," said Gilman, a former science adviser for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "The incinerators of yesteryear were these things that just burned waste to reduce volume. They didn't have energy capture. They didn't have air pollution control equipment."
A waste-to-energy plant, for instance, produces less carbon dioxide than a coal-fired power plant, according to a brochure Covanta developed for the proposed Chester County project.
Covanta officials like Chester County as a site for a new plant because it is strategically located between Columbia and Charlotte, and close enough to Greenville to possibly seek waste from there, as well. Covanta says it will seek business from communities in the region that now have garbage contracts with landfill companies to dispose of household refuse.
Headquartered in Fairfield, N.J., Covanta owns and operates more than 40 large-scale waste-to-energy plants in North America and is opening a plant in Ireland. Among the other facilities it operates are plants in Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. Chester County officials visited each of those last year.
Karlisa Parker, Chester County's economic development director, said the Covanta operations were clean, well-run and virtually odor free. That made a big difference in changing the minds of many about wanting a facility to burn garbage in Chester County, she said. Parker said the county paid its own way.
"It was thumbs up, 100 percent consensus," Parker said. "We went in to find odor, to find trash and a reason to say, 'We pass.' That's not what happened."
Even so, Covanta isn't without blemishes.
The company was forced to pay $355,000 last year into a special fund as part of a settlement with the state of Connecticut for dioxin violations. Gilman said the violations resulted from a misinterpretation of regulations by Covanta officials, but the dioxin levels were quickly brought in line. Covanta also was fined more than $50,000 combined for violations at facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Those resulted when pollution monitors were being worked on, Gilman said.
Gilman said some plants with environmental issues are older facilities that have been acquired by Covanta in recent years.
The Sierra Club's Bob Guild and Ann Timberlake, who heads the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, remain unconvinced that a waste-to-energy plant is needed in South Carolina.
Environmentalists have been working for years to limit the flow of out-of-state waste to South Carolina landfills. In 2007, they helped persuade the Legislature to close a nuclear waste dump to the nation after nearly 40 years in operation. Last year, the Legislature approved rules intended to stop the proliferation of mega garbage dumps that import waste from New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states.
"There's a lot of very sophisticated green-washing going on with this company," Guild said. "The reality is this adds air pollution to South Carolina to manage North Carolina and other states' garbage."
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.