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State to keep ban on new incinerators

By David Abel
Globe Staff / December 12, 2009

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After a yearlong review, environmental officials announced yesterday that they are continuing a 15-year-old moratorium on expanding or building new incinerators.

The review was part of the state’s effort to revise its solid-waste master plan and reduce the 1.5 million tons of trash it exports every year.

State officials had sparked controversy this year as they held public meetings around the state to consider revising regulations that have blocked the expansion of existing plants since 1994. New incinerators have been banned since 1990.

“We are serious about managing the waste we generate in a way that saves money for cities and towns, curbs pollution, and protects the environment,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement. “There are better ways than traditional incineration.’’

The extension was hailed by environmental groups.

“This is great news for the environment and for public health,’’ said James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. “We applaud the administration for outlining a comprehensive agenda to promote green energy and combat waste that doesn’t include burning trash.’’

Over the years, to the chagrin of environmental groups, waste management companies have lobbied aggressively to lift the ban, arguing that new technology significantly reduces emissions and that it is better to burn the trash and collect the resulting energy than dump the refuse in the state’s rapidly filling landfills or ship it out of state.

Ted Michaels - president of the Energy Recovery Council, a Washington-based trade association for waste-to-energy companies - called the state’s decision “a real disappointment.’’

“We believe waste-to-energy is an asset in Massachusetts and other states,’’ he said. “It’s being embraced by the most environmentally progressive countries in the world, especially in Western Europe. ’’

Officials at Wheelabrator Technologies, which operates incinerators in Saugus, North Andover, and Millbury that provide enough electricity to power more than 150,000 homes a day, declined to comment.

Environmental officials had decried the efforts to end the moratorium, arguing that new incinerators, however improved technologically, would contribute more pollution. Allowing new plants, they said, would encourage more incineration of waste and stifle incentives to recycle.

They also pointed out that the state already incinerates about one-quarter of the 12 million tons of waste it produces a year, significantly above the average 7 percent of trash burned nationwide.

“Recycling saves three to five times the energy that can be captured by incineration and without the harmful impacts on public health and the environment,’’ said Lee Ketelsen, codirector of Clean Water Action New England. “Every 10,000 tons of garbage that goes to disposal creates only one job, but the same amount of discarded products can employ dozens of people in recycling and hundreds more in reuse and repair.’’

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said the master plan would strengthen the moratorium by reducing the amount of recyclable material going into the waste stream. It will also develop new standards for existing waste-to-energy facilities that require higher recycling rates, lower emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and higher efficiency in energy conversion.

In a telephone interview, Bowles said a careful review found that it would be better to do more to promote recycling. “There are potentially new technologies out there, but there hasn’t been enough exploitation of other technologies,’’ he said. “The waste-to-energy technology created some unacceptable choices.’’

The state’s overall recycling rate for municipal waste stands at about 37 percent, up just 3 percent since 2000, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Bowles said the state will focus on expanding recycling efforts by pushing new legislation that would make producers of electronics responsible for their disposal, expand the state’s bottle law to include water and sports drink bottles, and prod communities to increase so-called single-stream recycling, which eliminates the need for households to sort recyclables.

State officials said they expect to issue a new draft of the solid-waste master plan in early 2010.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.