My trash that morning included food-encrusted paper plates from a family gathering, the never-read insert from a contact lens solution package, and the usual assortment of home-office detritus.
Now, just maybe, it was rolling past me in a white City of Harrisburg garbage truck, practically molecular amid the tons of trash delivered every day to the Susquehanna Resource Management Complex.
You might know this place better as the Harrisburg incinerator. It hasn’t been in the news much lately, and, yes, that’s perfectly fine with owner Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA), whose officials showed me around on a recent, warm day.
Not that things are standing still there. This is a facility in flux, already the recipient of $10.6 million in upgrades and slated for $25 million more by around 2031. LCSWMA sees the plant as part of a broad strategy to make trash disposal and waste-to-energy creation a regional effort.
What They Acquired
The quasi-governmental LCSWMA has photographic proof of the distressed, dilapidated facility it acquired on Dec. 23, 2013. This 59-acre tract between S. 19th and Cameron streets included an auto graveyard, a scrubby entrance guarded by a rusty gate, potholed roads, and lots littered with every form of trash imaginable—corrugated metal, concrete blocks, rotting wooden poles, soda bottles.
LCSWMA’s first task was site cleanup. The 180 tons of scrap collected sold for $42,000. About $1.5 million was pumped into aesthetics—a new entrance and fencing, repaved roads, landscaping. Even today, staffers cruising the site in golf carts stop to pick up every stray piece of trash.
“We care about what our neighbors think,” said CEO James D. Warner.
And, while aesthetics matter, LCSWMA also had to bring operational functionality to a facility that had suffered many botched upgrades, plus years of deferred maintenance. There was the inefficient collection system, forcing haulers to wait hours to tip their loads. Worn-out elements of the burning system weren’t replaced. The water-cooling system, essential to operations and now in the replacement rotation, demands constant repairs.
LCSWMA’s investment touched on every square inch of the site.
For instance, the main entrance, moved to 19th Street, now flows directly to a new scale house, with separate inbound and outbound scales.
A new, $5 million transfer building is where recyclable metals, pulled from the waste stream, are collected. It’s also where such small-haul customers as landscapers, contractors and plumbers unload their trash by hand. This step streamlined incoming traffic by keeping the slow unloaders from clogging up the line also occupied by automatically unloading trash trucks.
Overall, the plant received $3.9 million in upgrades, including three new boilers (they’re the equipment that do the actual incinerating), new fans and a $1.5 million emissions monitoring system. The new emissions monitoring system supplanted a creaky old one that symptomized many of the problems LCSWMA inherited.
“If you lose your (emissions) data, you lose your ability to prove your compliance, which means you’re automatically out of compliance,” said Warner.
How It Works
While LCSWMA is the site owner, operator Covanta—on a contract that expires in 2017 and currently negotiating a new agreement with LCSWMA—manages day-to-day functioning.
An average of 152 vehicles enter the site on weekdays. All are weighed coming in, their exit weights compared to determine the weight of the trash left behind. When exiting, municipal garbage trucks don’t have to cross the outbound scale because it’s already known how much these vehicles weigh when empty, another new streamlining procedure.
From there, garbage trucks enter the incinerator building and back up into the tipping area, high ceilinged and concrete floored. They disgorge their contents onto the floor while a worker known as the compliance officer operates a wheel loader to push the trash below an open arch.
From behind the arch, giant mechanized claws (TheBurg’s brilliant former staff reporter Paul Barker once called them “teddy pickers”) descend and grab great gobs of garbage. The crane-operated pickers drop the trash into hoppers, which feed chutes where it’s agitated and fed with combustion air for burning. The burners run 24/7, creating ash that moves through a conveyor system designed to corral both the heavy particles and the fly ash that likes to flitter off on its own.
The ash is then collected in trucks and trundled to a collection area just a couple hundred yards away on the site, waiting to be reloaded a fews days later for transport to LCSWMA’s Lancaster-area landfill.
Waste to Energy
Keep in mind that this is a waste-to-energy facility. Your garbage burns in a kind of box with a ceiling made of tubes. The fire heats water in the tubes to create steam, which is further super-heated and pumped through pipes to power turbines. Those turbines create the power that lights up the dark recesses of the Capitol complex. Any excess is sold to the regional power grid.
The Capitol complex arrangement was part of the multifaceted LCSWMA purchase deal that gave new life to a wheezing facility. LCSWMA needed revenue guarantees to justify the above-market purchase price of about $130 million. One part of the guarantee involved selling 110,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year to the state for 20 years, at about 4.3 cents per kilowatt hour.
The other part guarantees that my garbage—and yours, if you live anywhere in Dauphin County—will come to this facility until 2033. The city of Harrisburg is committed to delivering 36,800 tons a year, paying $190 for every ton tipped. Dauphin County’s commitment, at $80 a ton, is measured in revenue—$10.1 million worth of trash every year.
“We paid upfront based on how much trash they were going to generate over a fixed time,” said Warner. “They got all their money upfront in the acquisition price, and that’s why we have the obligation for a certain amount of business.”
City and county are delivering about 200,000 tons of trash a year, he said. If they deliver less, they would still pay up, but neither is falling short. In fact, keeping the facility functioning optimally requires trucking in another 100,000 tons from New Jersey.
“Power plants like to run at capacity,” he said.
If the proverbial can kicked down the road can have a resting place, perhaps this was it, amid the old trash-strewn lots and the visible signs of deferred maintenance. Much of LCSWMA’s investment has focused on whittling down the maintenance backlog. Boilers are now much less likely to break down, reaching “record highs” in their availability to process waste, said Warner.
“The asset is doing a wonderful job at doing what it’s supposed to do,” he said.
Shockingly, this is a rather new development.
“When things would break down [before] and the trash would back up, they would just say, ‘Hey, customers, you have to go somewhere else today,’” he said. “That’s a sin of all sins in this business to tell your customers to take their business elsewhere.”
Looking ahead, LCSWMA is instilling a scheduled maintenance discipline, blended with a broader vision of regionalizing the waste-to-energy scene. Though it’s a facility on the upswing, it remains hampered by the burn system installed by a company named Barlow before it went bankrupt. The system is so nonstandard that, according to Warner, it’s the only one in use today. It produces heat value—the amount of energy recovered from each ton burned—of only 80 percent, considered below industry standard.
Changing that burn system isn’t financially feasible, but LCSWMA’s plant upgrades and regular maintenance are meant to squeeze out a few more BTUs per ton. They include a scheduled turbine cleanup next year and replacing the facility’s cooling tower, now an assembly of six huge drums, with a system capable of cooling more water and helping the whole plant run more efficiently.
Another 2017 upgrade will replace the clunky, two-step ash collection and transport system—“the armpit of this facility,” Warner called it—with a process putting ash directly into trucks for hauling to Lancaster.
Waste-to-energy systems such as this plant constitute one of three options for managing our waste stream, he said. We can landfill it, recycle it, or burn it. Waste-to-energy opponents, claiming that municipal waste is non-renewable and derived from finite resources, call for more recycling. In Lancaster County, LCSWMA is both the recycling and waste disposal authority, and while it “works hard to increase recycling rates, there’s always enough waste to process,” he said.
“We process that post-recycling waste, we make renewable energy, and we take that ash and use it in lieu of dirt at our landfill to cover waste that couldn’t be processed,” he said.
Without burning, LCSWMA’s Lancaster landfill, established in 1989, would have been full in about 11 years, instead of the 30 now projected.
“Because we burn the trash and reduce the waste, we got 20 more years out of our landfill, and we generated millions and millions of kilowatt hours of renewable electricity,” said Warner.
Acquiring the Harrisburg facility brought a regionalized face to the Lancaster-based LCSWMA, whose facilities include a waste-to-energy facility in Bainbridge, Conoy Township. It also added operational redundancies that expand waste-handling options. When there’s a problem or scheduled outage at one LCSWMA plant, waste can be transferred to another. In the next two decades, as the Lancaster facility reaches capacity, Harrisburg will be able to handle the overflow, Warner said.
“We felt that by regionalizing and acquiring this asset, we could bring our expertise here to serve the city and the county, but we also saw that there was processing capacity—that, after it serves the local community, it can combust for energy more waste than they produce,” he said. “As we continue to grow in Lancaster, where our plant is relatively full, we have the ability in the future to ship waste from Lancaster and process it here because we can’t process it at our plant.”
Transporting trash wouldn’t negate the green advantages of waste-to-energy.
“Route 283 gives us that ability to get here by truck in 50 minutes,” Warner said. “It’s not transportation-sensitive because we can access it in a short distance and a short amount of time.”
As part of its mission and outreach, LCSWMA has committed to community service that supports the goal of greening the area. It’s the lead sponsor for the nearby Capital Area Greenbelt Association’s “Tour de Belt” fundraiser. The company waives tipping fees for Tri County Community Action’s annual “Great Harrisburg Litter CleanUp.” It’s also working with the Susquehanna Area Mountain Bike Association on trails.
It’s about asking, “How are we a neighbor to the city of Harrisburg?” Warner said.
“We are much more than a waste agency,” he said. “We think as a public authority whose main responsibility is to manage the trash. However, we need to connect in our community.”
To learn more about the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, visit www.lcswma.org.
Author: M. Diane McCormick