Patriot-News, The (Harrisburg, PA) (pg. D01)  [Printer-friendly version]
October 12, 2003


By Frank Divonzo

Where there's an incinerator, you'll find a smoke screen.

Why are Dauphin County Commissioners determined to support the
Harrisburg incinerator despite its lengthy history of underachievement
and noncompliance?

Why would the commissioners dismantle the waste disposal menu
available to municipalities and residents thus undermining consumer
choice and private market competition in favor of a big-government
solution and a public monopoly?

Could this decision rest upon the $1 million fee the county expects to
receive for guaranteeing the $125 million in bonds needed to build the

That paltry sum is hardly enough to justify the project's risks, which
I believe the commissioners have severely underestimated.

Harrisburg's ill-conceived incinerator has contributed to a dramatic
rise in city residents' trash rates and property taxes and soaring
budget deficits and indebtedness. In order to stave off defaults on
the incinerator bonds and to provide cash to plug the deficits, the
debt has been refinanced multiple times resulting in the overall
obligation increasing from $41 million in 1993 to $104 million in

The incinerator's financial viability weighs heavily on revenues from
waste tipping fees and steam and electricity sales.

To maximize revenues and optimize burning efficiency, incinerators
must process as much waste as possible. The new Harrisburg incinerator
could burn around 263,000 tons per year. Dauphin County generates
about 270,000 tons of waste per year, 70,000 tons of which is recycled
and 20,000 tons of which is obligated to the York incinerator.

The commissioners aim to increase the county's recycling rate to 35
percent thereby reducing the amount available to burn by another
20,000 tons, resulting in a heightened reliance on imported waste or a
reduction in available waste and losses in tipping fee, steam and
electric revenues.

Where else will the waste come from?

The authority's existing waste disposal agreements with Cumberland and
Perry counties do not obligate any minimum amount of waste to be sent
to the incinerator. The authority has offered 118,000 tons of capacity
to Waste Management at $38 per ton, well below cost.

Oddly, this would allow Waste Management to import waste to the
incinerator for less than the $50 per ton rate the authority has
offered to Dauphin County.

Furthermore, the authority's steam contract does not obligate NRG
Harrisburg to purchase any steam if it can meet customer demand
through its existing sources. The authority's electricity contract
with PPL Corp. expires in 2010, after which the authority will have to
enter a market already glutted with lower-priced alternatives.

The Dauphin County Commissioners recently approved a long-term waste
agreement with the authority and its guarantee of the incinerator
bonds will prove to be at odds, if the incinerator continues its
losing ways.

The commissioners will be compelled to choose between allowing the
bonds to default or agreeing to increase tipping fees. My guess is
that we will be charged more so that investors are protected.

The commissioners claim opening the incinerator would eliminate the
need for additional landfills in the county. However, upper Dauphin
County officials and residents have noted that the Dauphin Meadows
landfill might be reopened.

Ironically, if flow control to the incinerator is implemented, the
Meadows' neighbors would be compelled to send their waste south to
Harrisburg, while the Meadows would receive waste from outside the
county. In addition, the Meadows also could receive the incinerator's
bypass waste and ash.

However, the county's waste plan is being challenged. Future legal
challenges, particularly to flow control, are likely. These challenges
will cost county residents attorney fees and consultant fees.

If the county loses these legal battles and private competition is
restored, the numerous and less expensive waste disposal facilities
already approved to accept county waste could undermine the
incinerator's supply, exacerbate the facility's monetary losses and
heighten the risk of bond default. The county would be thrown into a
financial tumult far greater than Forum Place could ever achieve.

There is too much uncertainty associated with the Harrisburg
incinerator plan.

The consequences could be devastating and far-reaching. It is time the
commissioners elevate the broader public interest above the interests
of a few individuals who stand to gain from the project.

FRANK DIVONZO of Harrisburg is an anti-incinerator activist.

Copyright 2003, 2005 The Patriot-News