County executive calls trash debate 'waste of energy'

Passing the buck of waste disposal to another jurisdiction is the most cost-effective solution to Harford County's ongoing dilemma of where to put its trash, County Executive David Craig said Monday.

Craig told editors of The Aegis during a meeting in his office that the county's plan to build a waste transfer station on Route 7 in Joppa is the best option, especially with time running out as the current incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground is set to close in 2016, when it reaches the end of its useful life.

The county had been counting on a deal with the Army on a waste-to-energy plant that fell through last year.

"I call this whole thing a waste of energy because, after BRAC, it's been the biggest deal I have had to deal with, honestly," Craig said.

Now that a pending agreement would require Maryland Environmental Service to find a place to put the county's trash, Craig said the problem would be largely out of Harford's hands.

That deal hasn't been finalized, but regardless of the details, Craig said the bottom line is the disposal of the trash once it leaves Harford County will be the responsibility of Maryland Environmental Service, or MES.

"It takes a big issue off the table for us and it keeps things more flexible for us to have a transfer station," Craig explained. "The agreement that we are looking for is [for] a building that no one would even know was a transfer station... Whatever happens after that, we are trying to take it off the table."

Community opposition

People living near the proposed transfer station site are upset at the plan, which they say will lower their property values, boost truck traffic in their neighborhood and could cause environmental issues. Craig, however, says the site, which is close to the I-95/Route 152 interchange, is the most convenient.

The cost to dispose of trash in Harford is about $61 per ton, and Craig expects it to go up to $85 per ton in the long run. Though most of the residential and commercial trash generated in Harford is picked up by private companies, the costs those companies pay to get rid of the trash through tipping fees and their overhead, like fuel, is eventually passed back to their customers.

Energy Answers, a company with which MES had planned to work on a new incinerator deal in Baltimore City, may not be all it is cranked up to be, Craig said, but that would not be the county's concern.

MES is an independent state agency that does waste disposal deals and operates municipal sewage systems around the state. Its chief executive, who is appointed by the governor, is former Harford county executive Jim Harkins, whom Craig replaced in 2005 when Harkins left to run MES.

Craig said he understands Route 7 area residents are upset, but placing the facility in Joppa makes sense.

"That is the end of the county line, so [trash] has to go south somewhere," he said. "It is located in the best possible area because it's all going to go to the south."

$2.9 million purchase defended

Craig also defended the purchase of the former Plecker's World of Golf property, which residents criticized for being bought at a price far above the value of land surrounding it. The county paid $2.9 million for the 24 acres.

County employees went through the appropriate process in securing the site, he said, including getting an appraisal.

'"I am sure they asked," Craig said, noting the money for the purchase had been set aside in the budget. "It was publicly done, just like it usually is... I don't think anyone was following [the purchase]."

"Buying it as fast as you can is the best way to do it, unfortunately," he said, adding he does not know what the price would be in five years.

He described a chronic lack of cooperation between the major players on the issue.

"There was never any collaboration between the Northeast [Maryland Waste Disposal] Authority and the proving ground," he said. "It took us until probably around this time last year to really get down to know who at the federal level we should talk to. It's never the garrison commander. We finally found out it's not even a military person."

The waste authority, which includes Harford and Baltimore counties, set up the original deal to build the Aberdeen Proving Ground incinerator in the 1980s to sell steam to the installation.

Most council members mum

Other than Councilmen Dion Guthrie and Joe Woods, who represent the Joppa area, the majority of the county council members have been silent about the transfer station issue.

"Most council members don't feel the need to talk about it because it is not in their district," Craig said.

Craig said when President Barack Obama came into office, the Army's plans also changed "180 degrees" and a new steam-to-energy incinerator at APG was deemed no longer viable, he said.

"The value of steam as an energy [source] fluctuates so much that they are not going that route," he said of the military. "They basically backed off, so the facility is not needed anymore."

The post "would prefer for us not to be there," he said. "That was completely taken out from underneath us, in one way."

Craig said the county would be "100 percent" better off with his solution — consolidating the trash and shipping outside the county — simply because there are no other viable options. He also isn't concerned about the implication of being captive to an agreement with MES.

"You are a captive anyway, no matter what you do," he said.

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