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The Oregonian, July 26, 2010 The nation's largest landfill owner wants to team with a Bend-based company to turn 25 tons a day of Portland-area trash into fuel -- by vaporizing it at temperatures of up to 20,000 degrees. It's also the latest attempt to turn the nation's municipal garbage – the titanic jumble of trash from households and businesses – into a resource, make money off it and cut waste going into landfills.
The proposal for Waste Management's Columbia Ridge Landfill in Gilliam County is part of a race to get the first plant on the ground in the United States to process municipal solid waste using "plasma gasification," converting trash to gas at extraordinarily high temperatures.
The joint venture between InEnTec of Bend and Houston-based Waste Management, named S4 Energy Solutions, plans to build the plasma gasification plant by the end of this year at the landfill near Arlington.
Oregon environmental regulators issued a draft permit for the commercial pilot project Monday. It's open for public comment through Aug. 31.
Critics, including Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, point to operating woes at plasma plants and warn the plants could boost pollution and undermine waste reduction and recycling.
Waste Management officials said the Columbia Ridge plant will demonstrate the commercial viability of the technology, more widely used for destroying medical and hazardous waste.
It would complement recycling, composting and methane collection at landfills such as Columbia Ridge, which opened a methane-fueled power plant in January.
Waste Management owns 273 landfills nationwide. Columbia Ridge takes most of the Portland area's garbage and also accepts waste from Seattle, taking in roughly 7,000 tons a day.
"Columbia Ridge will be the first, but we expect to build many plants," said Jackie Lang, director of sustainability and community outreach for Waste Management of Oregon.
The waste would be shredded then fed through two gasification chambers. The first would use steam from an electric boiler, the other would use high-temperature electrically charged gases, otherwise known as plasma, heated by a high-voltage current.
The high temperatures break down organic material -- plastic, paper and food, for example -- to basic elements. Metal sinks to the bottom for recovery. Molten glass between the metal and plasma would capture other inorganic materials, typically minerals such as calcium and silica in the waste stream.
The gas generated in the chambers would be cooled and run through pollution scrubbers to form a synthetic gas, said Jeff Surma S4 Energy Solutions' chief executive officer. The pilot operation will burn the gas at the landfill's flare. In a full-blown commercial operation, it could be used as is or reformulated into liquid fuels such as ethanol and synthetic diesel.
Unlike incinerators, the low-oxygen process doesn't use combustion, so it doesn't directly pollute until the gas or fuel is burned, Surma said.
The process reduces the volume of waste by 100 to 1, Surma said, with the inorganic material locked in an obsidian-like glass.
In full commercial form, the process would use about 50 percent to 65 percent of the energy generated to operate the plant, Surma said. The rest could go to fuels for vehicles or power production.
"This basically takes the action that happens in a landfill over 30 years and completes it in seconds," Surma said.
Oregon classifies energy derived from solid waste as renewable under its renewable power goals. The company has also applied for an Oregon business energy tax credit on the $15.2 million project, expected to create 16 full-time jobs.
Critics question the air pollution from plasma plants, especially when the ultimate burning of the gas or fuel is taken into account. A 2008 Tellus Institute review for the state of Massachusetts found that plasma plants beat landfilling or incineration on most environmental measures, including toxic emissions.
But landfills with modern methane recovery systems release less greenhouse gas than converting the trash into fuel and burning it, the review concluded.
And the energy saved by recycling a ton of waste is more than triple the energy produced by plasma gasification, Tellus concluded.
To get financing, the plants would need long-term contracts for waste, critics note.
"These types of technologies are a disincentive to go toward a zero-waste society," said Joseph Miller, a board member for Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. "They're taking us in the wrong direction."
Waste Management says it's rapidly increasing recycling and food-waste collection. There's enough waste plastic and paper of little value to recyclers to fuel the process, Surma said.
Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality won't track air emissions from the small plant, relying instead on the landfill's overall limits.
In January, the joint venture estimated flaring the gas would generate about 35 tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants a year, well under the landfill's permit limits.
The draft permit also doesn't gauge the greenest way to process garbage -- an issue the agency will be reviewing, said Lissa Druback, solid waste manager in DEQ's Columbia Gorge office.
At this point, she said, "Nobody really has an answer."
The Oregonian, July 26, 2010
The nation's largest landfill owner wants to team with a Bend-based company to turn 25 tons a day of Portland-area trash into fuel -- by vaporizing it at temperatures of up to 20,000 degrees.
It's also the latest attempt to turn the nation's municipal garbage – the titanic jumble of trash from households and businesses – into a resource, make money off it and cut waste going into landfills.
Please go here for more information and resources on Oregon PSR's opposition to plasma gasification.