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Minnich: Garbage is political, and vice versa | COMMENTARY

“No clear solution for trash dilemma” was the Sunday headline.

The county commissioners spent two hours in a work session last week learning that there was no place to go with the trash people throw away each day, and the effort of just keeping on doing what we’re doing now is breaking the garbage budget.

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Twelve years ago, the county was headed toward a solution. For a while, I thought we had a path to a fix. The county commissioners took on the job of dealing with the complex problems, and we set about building community support.

We studied the science, took the temperature of the politics, invited all stakeholders to join in very transparent efforts to deal with the reality of living under the looming towers of trash and expense.

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We invited all the local haulers working in the county at the time to a joint meeting for their input and support for changes that would have to come to meet the environmental responsibilities, regulations, and control our shared interests — business, homeowners, taxpayers.

Talks were held with Howard and Frederick counties to work on a coalition to share the cash and resources — and benefits — of the best technologies available at the time. We sent staffers around the country and abroad to see what they did with their refuse and recycling issues in The Netherlands, France, Germany — countries with lots of people using consumer goods while having very little land for the good old American way of just burying trash.

We learned that the technology had been changing, and even better changes were on the horizon; Europeans and Asian nations were using an old idea with new technology — an updated version of the old incinerators — to reuse, recycle, and then burn the remainder as fuel to create energy for the electrical grid.

The new technology was much cleaner than the old incinerators, but burning trash had a bad reputation. Commissioners and staff, accompanied by reporters and others interested in learning something, visited waste-to-energy plants in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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We knew we had pushback to overcome, so we were open with what and how we were approaching the issue.

Opposition came from the usual suspects: Members of our own delegation to Annapolis who had a different agenda, members of the other party who were opposed to anything we did, and conservationists whose paradigms were locked on old biases to “burning” or were opposed to anything that did not include composting everything from used toilet paper to used cars.

At one point, I had a stack of materials more than a foot high on my desk — reading materials, charts, reports, photos and plans — materials we read and discussed in hours of meetings. No one was impressed.

Howard County dropped out, but Carroll and Frederick made a contract to keep moving forward. But time was running out; money was not forthcoming, resistance wore away at the community support, new commissioners were coming into office.

So it was talked to death. Carroll County dropped out, leaving Frederick to soldier on against assaults from Right and Left. And killed, eventually, by political factions schooled in the art of stalling and obstruction.

So, last week, the commissioners had a two-hour workshop and agreed that we have a problem.

In a nutshell, there is no place to put all the trash people create each day.

We can’t bury it forever because there’s only so much space allotted for that; can’t find more space because you can’t get permits anywhere near a stream or a residential area or a conservation zone — rules have become more complex and constraining for new projects.

Can’t haul it away like the old days, because other states don’t want it, either. Can’t burn it even if you could do it without air pollution because public opposition to the very idea would be an insurmountable political and legal obstacle, spending lots of time and money on litigation.

So, the commissioners of 2021 made a decision: More research was needed. As Commissioner Stephen Wantz was quoted: “We’ve got to get every possible avenue of where we need to go with this on paper, and look at it again.”

Dean Minnich served as a county commissioner from 2002–2010, after a career in journalism. His column appears Thursdays. Email him at dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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