Tulsa's trash-to-energy plant closes


As the Whirled reported last Friday (continued here) and Saturday (continued here), Covanta, the operator of Tulsa's "trash-to-energy" incinerator (owned by CIT Group Inc.) on West 21st Street, is bankrupt and has shut down operations at the Tulsa facility. For now, Tulsa's trash will go to the landfill, which will actually save money -- about $2.5 million a year, according to Cheryl Cohenour, the head of the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy (TARE). But the City of Tulsa still owes $33.2 million on construction of the plant. The Whirled's Saturday story reported that Tulsa generates 800 tons of trash a day. About 15% of our trash ends up at the landfill, which has a 25 year capacity at the current rate of usage (with the incinerator in operation), with other inactive landfill sites that could be called into service if needed.

Why Tulsa's ratepayers were paying millions per year more to have their trash burned is a long story that goes back to the arrangements made when the plant was opened in the mid '80s. For background, I'll direct your attention to a couple of stories from Tulsa Today back in 1999, which are still available online thanks to archive.org, the Internet's "Wayback Machine". The trash-to-energy plant became an issue that year in connection with the a 7% trash rate hike. Then-Councilor Anna Falling attempted to forestall the rate hike by pushing for the introduction of curbside recycling. Her well-intentioned involvement in a pilot recycling project generated a lot of controversy and led to her re-election defeat the following year.

In that context, Tulsa Today published a summary of the controversy, which included a brief history of the trash-to-energy plant. Here's an excerpt that deals with the circumstances of the 1998 trash rate hike.

In May 1998, shortly after Falling took office, the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority (TMUA) informed the City Council that increase in sewer, stormwater, and refuse rates was required in order to pay for capital improvements mandated by federal and state governments, principally to pay for the trash-to-energy plant upgrade. The proposed 21% increase in rates would be phased in over five years. Tulsans were already paying the highest trash rates in the state and the region. Falling, who made holding the line on rates a key plank of her platform, began to investigate alternatives to the increases. Could Tulsa seek an extension or an exemption from the EPA? Would curbside recycling reduce the flow of trash to the incinerator, and thus its emissions, sufficiently to bring the plant into compliance with a less expensive upgrade?

In July 1998, Falling assembled the facts she had gathered and presented them to the Council with her recommendations. She persuaded the City Council to delay approval of the trash rate increase to allow time to consult with Oklahoma's congressional delegation and seek their help in dealing with the EPA. Ultimately, the increase was approved, but Falling continued to pursue ways to decrease the cost of the plant upgrade to the City. In her Fall 1998 newsletter, she surveyed District 4 residents for their interest in curbside recycling. Encouraged by the positive response, she began to organize a team of volunteers to conduct a privately-funded curbside recycling pilot project, which she announced at a January town hall meeting. The same month, she also convened a meeting with representatives from the EPA, the Oklahoma DEQ, TARE, the Council and the City administration. At that meeting an EPA engineer stated that reducing the amount of trash sent to the trash-to-energy plant could reduce emissions to the level required by the new standard, but such a reduction in the volume of trash would put Tulsa at risk of violating its contract with Ogden Martin.

Note the dilemma the city was in -- we could avoid the retrofit by reducing trash incineration, but that would mean violating our contract with Ogden Martin (now Covanta), which dated back to the plant's opening and would run until 2007.

The whole trash-to-energy idea seemed like a good idea at the time. Yes, it might cost more to incinerate trash than to dump it in a landfill, but the resulting energy (the plant produces steam) would be less expensive than natural gas. That was the thinking in the late '70s and early '80s. Then the price of natural gas plummeted, eliminating most of the rationale for the plant, but we were already heavily invested ($92 million in city revenue bonds). At its closing, the plant's only energy customer was the neighboring Sun refinery.

The political lesson to be learned from the trash-to-energy plant story is that political leaders and citizens should be reluctant to enter into any long-term contracts. Circumstances can change suddenly.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 30, 2003 12:10 AM.

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