A state plan to loosen a nearly quarter-century moratorium on new waste incinerators is renewing a long-simmering trash war in Massachusetts over how to deal with the vast amounts of garbage that residents and businesses generate each day.
State officials say landfill space is already so tight that Massachusetts is forced to export significant amounts of trash. By the end of the decade, space will be so scarce that the state could export as much as 18 percent of the garbage it generates.
To ease the landfill crunch, officials want to allow new technologies on a limited scale that would turn waste into energy and not emit as many harmful air pollutants as traditional incinerators.
Yet environmentalists are ardently opposed, arguing that the state could find more space for garbage if it stopped allowing banned materials such as recyclables, yard debris, and wood into landfills and incinerators. At the South Hadley Landfill in October, for example, there were at least 50 truckloads of banned material dumped in the landfill, according to town officials.
Environmentalists maintain that the new technologies are unproved and environmentally unsound and that loosening the incinerator moratorium will mean the state will not work harder to reduce waste.
"New technologies are proposed all the time, but thus far none of them have been proven safe and effective in removing harmful air pollution,'' said Sue Reid, director of the Massachusetts office of Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based legal environmental advocacy group.
State officials will probably decide whether to ease the moratorium within 30 to 60 days after receiving public comment through Feb. 15 as part of finalizing a solid-waste master plan for the state. Taunton officials are already hoping to bring such a facility to their community.
Garbage woes are nothing new in Massachusetts, which boasts some of the country's most ambitious efforts to reduce garbage. The state, for instance, will begin banning some commercial food waste from landfills and the seven existing incinerators in 2014. But Massachusetts has experienced problems achieving those reduction goals.
The state lifted a moratorium on landfills in 2000 because of a growing realization that more space was needed for garbage, but no new landfills have been built because of a lack of space and opposition from local communities. The state has periodically reviewed its 1990 incinerator moratorium, most recently in 2009, when officials decided to keep the moratorium in part because new technologies to burn garbage in an environmentally safe way remained unproved.
Now, state officials say the situation is dire. In 2010, Massachusetts landfills had space left for about 2 million tons of garbage. By 2020, landfills will have room remaining for less than 600,000 tons. Without increased recycling, waste reduction, composting, or more space in Massachusetts landfills, garbage exports are projected to rise to 2 million tons a year by 2020.
"Even if we hit these extremely aggressive recycling targets, we would have still have a capacity problem," said Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said emerging technologies could help the state get rid of garbage that cannot be recycled.
Instead of traditional incineration that emits copious pollutants into the air, technologies called gasification or pyrolysis convert garbage into liquid fuels or gas that is clean and renewable and with less air pollution, he said. No such commercial technology operates in the United States, environmentalists say, which is why they are skeptical.
Kimmell said loosening the rules would allow a trial of the technology and only consume up to 350,000 tons of garbage a year out of 10 million to 11 million tons Massachusetts residents and businesses generate each year. Recyclables or banned material would not be allowed, and the facilities would have to adhere to strict air-quality rules.
Although Kimmell acknowledged a problem with enforcement of banned and recyclable material being dumped in landfills, he said the issue was unrelated to needing more ways to get rid of garbage. Still, he pledged to expand a pilot program to require third-party independent "spotters" paid for by the state's 230 transfer stations, landfills, and incinerators to document trucks that dump significant amounts of banned material. State environmental officials will follow up with enforcement, he said.
But environmentalists — and even a former state inspector — say they do not know how the state will guarantee that recyclables and banned materials will not be fed into new facilities, or even old landfills, if so much is getting in now.
State environmental officials acknowledge that about 17 percent of the waste sent to the state's seven existing incinerators is paper that could be recycled. Marc Fournier, a solid-waste consultant and former state inspector, said enforcement of waste bans has been a problem for years and better enforcement is needed to "conserve natural resources and preserve landfill space."
State officials have issued 124 notices of noncompliance with waste bans in the last four years, although only four fines have been issued. Environmentalists say 124 is a tiny fraction of the true number of violations.
Few cases are as illustrative as South Hadley, where residents and town officials took it upon themselves to document hundreds of violations of the waste ban at the South Hadley Landfill.
After the local Board of Health wrote a letter to the state, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of noncompliance to the company that operates the landfill, Advanced Disposal. But the South Hadley Board of Health recently wrote another letter complaining that the state did not issue a penalty. In fact, the letter notes, the day after the company received the notice of noncompliance, a South Hadley resident videotaped a truck dumping an entire load of wood in the landfill.
"It is a joke; what is the point of having a state ban if there are no consequences?'' asked Suzanne Cordes, clerk of the South Hadley Board of Health. "They need to fine them."
An official with Advanced Disposal declined comment. Joe Ferson, a DEP spokesman, said, "Based upon the data we have seen, the waste ban compliance rate [at South Hadley] is unacceptable, and we are investigating the situation."
"That is not an isolated incidence,'' said Lynne Pledger, solid waste director for Clean Water Action, one of the many environmental groups against the state's plan. "Of course if we didn't put banned material in landfills, there would be more room. . . . The fact is these [new incineration] technologies are going to compete with recycling for paper, cardboard, and plastics."