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A loader drops a bucket of trash into one the Harford County waste-to-energy facility's furnaces Monday. The plant is closing this week after 29 years.
A loader drops a bucket of trash into one the Harford County waste-to-energy facility's furnaces Monday. The plant is closing this week after 29 years. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

When operations end at Harford County's waste-to-energy steam plant in Joppa Thursday, 47 people, some who have worked there for nearly 30 years, will lose their jobs.

Those 47 people work for Energy Recovery Operations Inc., the subcontractor that operates a plant that provides about 50 percent of the steam energy needed to heat and cool building at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Area by burning the majority of Harford County's non-recyclable trash.

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Many of the employees, who support spouses and children, do not yet have new jobs lined up.

"This is all Energy Recovery does, so we don't have any other place to put people, so their jobs will be ending," company President Jeffrey Poulton said Monday.

The waste-to-energy facility, which is off Magnolia Road just outside the southern gate to the Edgewood Area, is owned by the federal government, and it is leased by the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority.

It handles trash collected by Harford County haulers, as well as multiple private businesses who want to get rid of their refuse. The facility has four furnaces where the trash is burned, which then heats water in boilers, and the steam created is sent to the Edgewood Area via underground pipes.

The lease agreement expires Thursday, however, and it will not be renewed as the Army oversees the construction of a $40 million natural gas-fired plant designed to provide 80 percent of the Edgewood Area's electricity and steam needs.

Starting later this year, Harford County's waste will be taken to a transfer station in Baltimore County for disposal via recycling, landfilling or other means, according to an agreement the two counties signed in 2013. All the Harford waste will temporarily be disposed at the county's remaining public landfill in Scarboro because the new transfer facility in White Marsh isn't completed. The landfill also is being phased out.

The waste-to-energy facility runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Workers driving front-end loaders scoop up piles of trash dropped off by garbage trucks and deposit the waste in the incinerator.

Poulton said a "bucketful" of trash is placed in the incinerators every six to seven minutes. The plant handles 100 garbage trucks on heavy days, and about 60 trucks on an average day. Each furnace has a capacity of 90 tons per day.

As the Edgewood Area does not need as much steam as it does during the colder months, the excess is used to power a turbine on site, which can generate about one megawatt of electricity, "enough to run the plan," according to Poulton.

The plant has an annual operating budget of $8 million, for which Harford County fully reimburses the company through the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, as long as the plant stays within its budget, Poulton said.

He said the plant has processed more than 3.5 million tons of trash and produced 13 billion pounds of steam, not only saving the Army millions of dollars in oil and steam purchases but keeping all that trash out of landfills.

How will ex-employees cope?

Poulton said employees will lose a competitive benefits package when the plant operations end, including health insurance and 401(k) retirement savings.

"The benefit packages, unfortunately, go away with the jobs," he said. "Health insurance is a big one; a lot of our folks are family people."

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Poulton, who lives in Joppatowne about one mile from the plant, said about 90 percent of the employees live in Harford County. The rest live in Baltimore and Cecil counties.

Administrative assistant Rosalind Isella , left, and office manager Donna Timlin talk about their time at the Harford County waste-to-energy incinerator that is closing this week after 29 years.
Administrative assistant Rosalind Isella , left, and office manager Donna Timlin talk about their time at the Harford County waste-to-energy incinerator that is closing this week after 29 years. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Poulton, who moved to Maryland from New Hampshire to work at the waste-to-energy facility, was present when the plant was being built 1987.

"I remember being here on Thanksgiving Day 1987, lighting furnaces, checking the boilers," he said.

The plant, which was being run by a private operator at the time, began operating Jan. 4, 1988. Poulton's company took over its operation in 2002.

Many employees will be retained through the four-to-six week decommissioning and cleanup process, Poulton said. He said the equipment, including furnaces and boilers, will be sold at auction, and then the building could be demolished.

"There's a range of emotions, but they're trying to conduct business as usual until Thursday," he said of the mood among the employees.

'A good group of guys'

"It'll be the first time I've ever collected unemployment in my life," said Rosalind Isella, of Fallston, an administrative assistant who has worked at the plant 17 years.

She lives with her fiance, and she has two children, a 14-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter. Her daughter attends Harford Community College.

"We're just going to be applying for financial assistance right now," she said regarding college costs. "I might even be going back to school."

Energy Recovery employees expressed frustration at the closing, noting their plant meets or exceeds environmental and worker safety standards, and that the waste-to-energy process is classified as a renewable energy source in Maryland.

"I love the waste-to-energy industry," said operations supervisor Richard Charles, of Aberdeen. "It's free energy – it's trash to waste."

Charles, who has worked at the plant for 14 years, does not yet have a new job lined up, but he'd like to stay in the waste-to-energy field.

"Part of me really wants to stay in this industry because you see the positive impact that reducing waste has," he said.

Josh Carter, of North East, has worked at the plant for two years. The father of two started working on the plant maintenance crew as a welder and working on machinery.

"We have a good group of guys," he said. "I enjoy coming to work."

Charles said he believes the plant's closing could result in higher sanitation fees for Harford County customers, as their private waste haulers face higher transportation costs associated with using the White Marsh transfer facility. The environmental impact could be worse as more trash goes to landfills, he added.

"It's really going to be a bad situation for the people of Harford County when this plant shuts down," he said.

Some find work

Darin Gniewek, of Havre de Grace, has been able to land a new job. He has worked for Energy Recovery since 1995 as a rolling stock mechanic, servicing all heavy equipment.

"It's just great management," he said of his employer. "It's like one big family here."

Decommissioning is getting underway for the waste-to-energy incinerator that has disposed much of Harford County's non-recyclable solid waste for nearly 30 years and is due to be shut down for good in the next 10 days.

Gniewek is married with three children, ages 9, 18 and 24. He is set to start a new job with a local Komatsu dealership as a mechanic, working on the construction and mining equipment manufactured and sold by Komatsu.

It will be only the second company he was worked for since leaving the Army.

"I went from high school to the Army to [Energy Recovery]," he said.

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The Connecticut native worked on heavy trucks in the Army, when he was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Gniewek is one of about half a dozen veterans who works for Energy Recovery. Poulton is also a veteran, having served in the Navy from 1974 to 1977.

Thomas Epps, of Aberdeen, is a father of four who has worked at the plant for nine years. He is the safety coordinator and building and grounds supervisor.

Epps has a background in industrial safety, having worked as a building and chemical operator at the Edgewood Area from 2005 to 2007, before he came to work for Energy Recovery in 2007.

"They take great pride in safety, and it's almost like a family, so because of that it was a really easy decision for me to go ahead and come to work for the company, because I could utilize my skills to make a difference," he said.

Good safety record

Poulton and Ken Jackson, the plant's general manager and another Navy veteran, pointed out a banner marking the facility's SHARP certification from 2007.

The SHARP, or Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program, is a federal OSHA safety program that is administered by the state.

Jackson said a company has to be "better than the industry standard" for preventing injuries and accidents to earn the certification. He said the certification process took 18 months, and the plant underwent a "complete audit" by inspectors.

Jeffrey Poulton, president of Energy Recovery Operations Inc., right, talks with operations supervisor Richard Charles as they look out over the Harford County waste-to-energy facility Monday. The plant is closing this week after 29 years.
Jeffrey Poulton, president of Energy Recovery Operations Inc., right, talks with operations supervisor Richard Charles as they look out over the Harford County waste-to-energy facility Monday. The plant is closing this week after 29 years. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

He said he emphasizes the SHARP principles to new employees when discussing worker safety.

"Anything short of being like this won't work for us," he said.

Tracy Fearson, who lives on Magnolia Road and walks to work each day, has worked at the plant since 1989.

He is the plant engineer, responsible for all environmental reports and compliance, and he supervises the electrical and safety departments.

"I make sure that all the equipment functions properly, and if it doesn't, I fix it," he said.

Fearson came to Energy Recovery after five years in the Navy. He started at the entry level, operating a loader, and he worked his way to plant engineer.

He was also heavily involved in upgrades to the plant's Internet connection and information technology assets, and he expects he would find work in the technology sector. He is president of Hyrda Corp, a side technology business.

"They've always been good about reinvesting money into upgrading [technology]," he said of Energy Recovery officials.

Bob Bradley, of White Hall, is the company's business manger. He, like Poulton, has worked at the plant since it opened.

Bradley noted the plant has not changed, other than a retrofit of its pollution control equipment, but he has seen many different workers come through the facility.

He is married with three adult children, and the youngest is completing a master's degree.

"I couldn't have asked for a better place to be employed," he said.

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