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Politicians "talk trash" in Perham

PERHAM - Talking trash in Perham recently were a pair of politicians - one Republican, one Democrat.

Typical election year mud-and-muck-slinging?


These legislators were talking trash incineration, and the future of the Perham Resource Recovery facility. Area officials want to expand capacity at the solid waste incinerator, and are looking for garbage from more counties to make it financially feasible.

Solid waste professionals from three counties, Republican State Rep. Dean Simpson, and State Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Wadena discussed legislative concerns--and took a tour of the incinerator operation with facility manager Brian Schmidt.

There are a number of issues facing the incinerator these days, and yet another was added to the list recently.

A political action group, which is opposing an incinerator facility in the Metro area, is trying to push through legislation that would have implications for all nine incinerator plants scattered around the state, according to Mike Hanan, Otter Tail County solid waste director.

In general terms, the proposal asks that waste incinerators be removed from the classification as "renewable" energy sources. Without that classification, there would be no motivation for power companies to "buy" energy generated from waste incinerators. As it stands now, a company like Otter Tail Power can purchase energy from incinerators and it qualifies as "green" energy - helping NSP meet the state goal of generating 25 percent of its total energy through renewable sources by 2025.

Steam from incinerator "recycled" for industrial use

In Perham's case, it sells steam generated by the resource recovery facility to Bongards cheese plant and Tuffy's pet foods. Last year, the plant generated produced more than 321 million pounds of steam, generated by burning 34,380 tons of waste.

Bongards cheese plant alone bought 256 million pounds for its production; while Tuffy's purchased 37.8 million.

The Perham facility also has the ability to convert the steam energy to electric - and sell it to NSP, which can then record it toward the 25 percent "green" energy requirements.

Statewide, the nine waste-to-energy facilities produce energy equal to 1.2 million barrels of crude oil each year.

With numbers like that, and the aggressive "green" energy goals of the next 20 years, it's easy to understand why legislators are being courted and educated.

Interestingly, even the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is supporting the increase of waste-to-energy 30 percent by 2011, noted Hanan.

With the state's chief pollution control authority favoring increased garbage incineration, it is hard to imagine that the opponents' campaign will gain steam - so to speak - during the upcoming 2008 legislative session.

"It is a total shame that we're landfilling," said State Rep. Simpson during the Perham meeting with regional solid waste managers, calling the anti-incinerator initiative "ludicrous...This whole thing is just a matter of common sense."

Incinerators held to much higher environmental standards than before

Neither State Sen. Skogen nor Simpson believe the anti-incinerator measure will pass in St. Paul. For one thing, opponents of incineration who argue on environmental grounds don't have much to stand on. There were a couple of horror stories from back in the 1970's - most notably in Kansas - where mercury and other toxic emissions were dangerously high.

But that was then, and this is now. Over the past 30 years, pollution control standards have become extremely restrictive. Where toxic emissions were once measured on "parts per thousand or hundred-thousand," standards now are "parts per million or billion."

Another bit of information that had the legislators shaking their heads in disbelief is that Otter Tail and other counties are shipping thousands of tons of solid waste every week, 100 miles or more - to Gwinner, N.D.

Meanwhile, the Perham incinerator facility is willing and ready to increase its burning capacity and expand. In fact, there is a $3 million pollution control grant approved, ready and waiting. But first, Perham and the partner counties need to come up with the rest of the money--estimated variously around $6 million.

Multi-jurisdiction panel working to create new governing entity

A state of limbo has existed for months, as Otter Tail, Todd, Wadena and Perham officials try to come together on a system to govern the facility; as well as find the money and the future waste needed to expand the facility.

Right now, Perham processes about 100 tons of waste per day. Compare this to some of the larger incinerators in the state, with a capacity of 1,000 tons per day.

In order to make an expansion economically feasible, the Perham facility would need more garbage. Lots more garbage; like 10,000 to 20,000 more tons per year.

Stearns County to end contract with Perham incinerator facility

Stearns County is going to end its contract with Perham Resource Recovery in 2009. That means the annual loss of 6,500 tons of solid waste.

Wadena, Todd and Otter Tail contracts expire in the year 2022.

Becker County, which is shipping its garbage to Fargo, is one of the most likely customers, said Hanan Becker would bring in about 10,000 tons of waste a year.

"Fargo is growing so fast, the time will come that they won't want to take waste from Becker," said Hanan.

Moorhead and Clay County are also prospects for the Perham facility.

But before the expansion, or much of anything else, can happen--the various powers need to come to terms with a new multi-jurisdictional governing system, and also determine who or what agency will own the facility.

Perham offers to sell Resource Recovery facility to multi-county group

Back in October, the Perham City Council passed a motion that offered to sell the entire incinerator facility to a multi-county, joint powers entity. The city's conditions: That the counties refinance the debt; relieve the city of Perham of all past, present and future liability; that the city maintain an ex-officio position on the joint powers board; and the city continue to receive its administrative fees until the sale of the facility is completed.

The joint powers group is still negotiating regarding the sale and new governing body - but nothing formal has been brought back to the county boards or the city council for action.

The clock is ticking, however. The pressure is on for the various jurisdictions to come up with a final governing and ownership solution. The $3 million grant opportunity is scheduled to expire this spring. At the Feb. 11 Perham City Council meeting, the city made the step and voted to formally apply for the grant before the March 31 deadline.

Fifteen employees now work at the Perham incinerator plant. With the expansion, four more employees would be added, according to facility manager Brian Schmidt.

Our "throw-away' society

Most solid waste solutions are multi-faceted, said Otter Tail's Hanan. Seldom will any single approach solve solid waste disposal issues.

Ideally, the solutions are in this order, from most desirable to least:

• Reduce the amount of solid waste we produce.

• Re-use solid waste whenever possible.

• Recycle solid waste that can be put to another use.

• Compost those materials that are organic and can be "returned to the earth."

• Recover recourses, through facilities like the one in Perham which uses waste-to-energy incineration.

• At the very bottom of the list is landfilling, which is the least desirable means for waste disposal.

Rep. Dean Simpson perhaps summed up the situation best. "When we're a throw-away society, we had better figure out what to do with everything we throw away."