ANSWERS SOUGHT TO TRASH PROBLEM

JAY JOCHNOWITZ Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Friday, January 28, 1994

While ending a long-running environmental controversy, the state's decision to stop burning trash at the Sheridan Avenue plant by this weekend leaves Albany with a host of new problems and challenges.


The action raises questions about how the city will pay millions of dollars in current bills, and potentially many millions more in trash disposal costs in the future, depending on how long Albany can stretch out the life of a landfill. It is estimated to have only about 18 months of space left in it. The bottom line, acknowledged Mayor Jerry Jennings, is that the state's decision has accelerated the need to come up with a long-range answer for the region's trash. While he has no immediate meetings scheduled, Jennings has hoped to bring officials from Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties together to discuss a joint, long-range solution.


"We have to look at a solution to this region's waste problems," Jennings said Thursday, a day after he and state officials met and announced that the plant will stop burning trash. State Office of General Services spokesman Thom Tubbs said that garbage burning most likely will stop Saturday, when all the trash that has already been processed is burned.


After that, the state will switch to natural gas, the only fuel left for the system since the plant stopped burning oil after it recently spewed large petroleum deposits over portions of the city. The Office of General Services, which relies on the plant to provide 1.2 billion pounds of steam a year for the Empire State Plaza, still is working on plant improvements and other Department of Environmental Conservation conditions to resume oil burning.


For nearly 13 years, the plant has supported an operation of collecting, shredding, burning and burying 600 to 700 tons of trash that arrive daily. The garbage comes from the city, most other communities in Albany County except Colonie, and the city of Rensselaer.


Jennings reaffirmed Thursday that the city will continue to meet its obligations, but Albany now faces decisions about how to do that without an incinerator plant that reduced the waste to ash and last year earned the city some $3 million. For this year, it leaves a hole in the budget of more than $2.3 million that was to come from the state for payment on the shredded trash.


"The decision was clearly the right decision from a public health perspective," said city Comptroller Nancy Burton. "I honestly don't know how we're going to deal with the revenue hole it's produced."


With both sides saying the arrangement ended the city-state contract that had been effective through 2002, Tubbs said, "We have agreed in concept to negotiate ... an agreeable set of terms. There will be some consideration that will continue to the city."


Tubbs said there was no new figure yet. He noted that the state itself will save $600,000 a year by switching to natural gas.


Another immediate question is whether it makes sense for the city to continue paying EAC Operations/ Albany Inc., a subsidiary of Energy Answers Corp., the equivalent of nearly $4 million a year to run the city's waste shredding plant. The plant's main purpose is to process waste, through shredding and blending, into a burnable fuel for the state incinerator.


Energy Answers spokeswoman Mary Ann Mahoney referred all questions about the plant to city and state officials. She did indicate that the firm doesn't agree with the decision to stop burning trash when the recent soot deposits were traced to the burning of oil, not waste.


Environmentalists and residents around the plant, however, say the emissions from waste burning, while not as readily visible, are likely to be even more hazardous.


"They're taking a direction based on a lot of public pressure," said Mahoney. "It's their lead and their approach to this problem, or to this perceived problem."


Public Works Commissioner George Nealon said it still makes sense to continue shredding trash, because the operation also has the effect of compacting garbage. Unburned trash, he said, will fill the landfill up about four times as quickly as ash, but shredding will still cut the volume roughly in half.


"It's an expensive space saver, but it's a space saver," said Nealon. He noted that the city could scale back the cost by shredding without thoroughly blending the trash.


The city also will save on the cost of trucking waste from the Rapp Road plant to downtown. Although no cost breakdown of that operation was yet available, EAC records indicate that trucking accounts for at least one-sixth of the labor costs; eliminating the jobs would save more than $400,000.


The city also may slow the filling of the landfill by burning trash at another location, such as the Washington County incinerator in Hudson Falls, where officials have expressed a need for more fuel.


"I'm sure every kind of option will be considered," said Corporation Counsel Vincent J. McArdle Jr.


Environmentalists who only a week ago were calling for the shutdown of the plant were also acknowledging the problem caused when their demand was answered. But Judith Enck, senior environmental analyst with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said her organization last fall presented Jennings with some ideas on beefing up what she calls an "anemic" recycling program.


The group said the city could "get literally thousands of tons out of the waste system ... This is a great opportunity for recycling to prosper."


Jennings said other groups have also expressed interest in working with the city on recycling and waste reduction.