The air inside the Harford County Resource Recovery Facility in Joppa is filled with an ever-present stench of trash.
"That's the smell of money," said Frank Henderson, Harford's deputy director of environmental affairs, as he took a deep breath at the plant that residents call simply "the waste-to-energy."
Harford County, which has been turning trash into energy for 20 years, is considering replacing the 20-year-old plant with a multimillion-dollar upgrade that would be a viable source of power and revenue well into this century. The new plant could handle Harford's trash as well as that of neighboring Baltimore and Cecil counties, and process as much as 1,500 tons a day, nearly four times what it burns now, officials said.
Officials are expected to decide soon whether to expand or rebuild.
"Every one of us feels that this is a priority," said Billy Boniface, president of the Harford County Council. "Rather than retrofit the plant, we feel that, in the long run, we will save more and be able to do more with a new facility. The costs, some of which we hope to share, and how to proceed will be in this budget."
If officials move forward with construction of an estimated $340 million plant, Harford would generate enough steam and electricity to power Aberdeen Proving Ground and about 12,000 homes and businesses in the county.
The self-sufficient plant on Magnolia Road, which employs 46, already saves the county an estimated $1.7 million annually in energy, officials said.
"This is truly a renewable resource, just from stuff we throw away," said Jeffrey J. Poulton, plant manager.
The tipping floor at the 60,000-square-foot facility handles as many as four garbage truck loads simultaneously and as much as 1,500 tons of trash. Four furnaces, each burning at about 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, incinerate 360 tons daily.
The trash-to-energy process is a sound investment that promises a good return, said Robin Davidov, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, which oversees Harford's plant as well as those in Montgomery County and Baltimore City.
"Energy costs are up, and landfill space is scarce," she said. "Harford has been a leader in waste management for 20 years but has outgrown its facility. Jurisdictions have to spend money to get rid of trash anyway. Why not invest in your own facility and earn revenue by selling energy?"
The waste-to-energy technology has become so popular in Europe that many municipalities have banned landfills, said Davidov, who last spring toured several European cities that had plants operating in their downtowns.
In Europe, she said, "If it can be made into energy, it can't be put in a landfill."
Harford's waste-to-energy plant, one of 89 in the United States, operates round the clock at about 90 percent of its capacity. It handles its own energy needs as well as providing steam to heat and cool much of Aberdeen Proving Ground, its nearest neighbor.
Three miles of underground steam lines supply the Edgewood area of the base - homes, labs, barracks, dining halls, officers quarters - with air conditioning in the summer and meet much of the heating demand in winter.
"The energy needs for the Edgewood area of the base are already supplied by the trash people in Harford leave at the end of their driveways," Poulton said.
The base, which will add nearly 10,000 jobs as part of the nationwide military expansion, known as BRAC, is seeking additional energy for the new buildings that will house relocated agencies. Military officials have agreed to pay for steam line replacement and energy purchases.
The increased demand and revenue are bolstering arguments for a new facility - a larger regional incineration facility at the same location, which could dispose of trash not only from Harford but other counties as well, officials said.
"We would absolutely be interested," said Ed Adams, director of public works in Baltimore County. "These plants are basic to the future of waste disposal. Landfills are more and more difficult to come by, and everyone in this market is hoping to curtail the transfer of waste out of state."
Carroll and Frederick counties are also considering a shared plant to address solid waste. Carroll Commissioner Michael Zimmer called the Joppa plant, which he toured last year, "a model for all of us." Carroll is transferring much of its trash to Virginia for disposal, an undertaking that is increasing in cost.
"What happens when the price of transporting trash becomes outrageous?" asked J. Michael Evans, Carroll's public works director.
Harford broke ground for a $34 million plant in August 1986 and opened it in November of the next year. The county spent an additional $10 million in upgrades three years ago to comply with the latest air quality standards.
"We are no burden on taxpayers," Poulton said. "What we burn pays the mortgage and allows us to sell steam."
Proponents insist that waste-to-energy plants burn cleaner than the average power plant. At Harford's facility, burners, all on scheduled maintenance cycles, can operate separately or simultaneously. A 120-foot-tall cylinder scrubs pollutants out of the exhaust gas. What remains in the scrubber is run through a fabric filter. The resulting ash can be used to make concrete or to cover land-filled trash.
Harford boasts the highest recycling rate in the state, at 63 percent, but the county still processes about 155,000 tons of waste annually. Crews at the plant scan for items that can be recycled, such as cardboard, steel, aluminum and glass, and get those items back into the marketplace. Then a front-end loader piles trash into the furnaces. The plant handles about 110,000 tons and the rest goes to the county's only landfill.
The landfill, which is rapidly approaching capacity, is set for an expansion next year. A modernized plant could extend the life of the landfill by about 60 years, officials said.
Construction of a plant equipped with 21st-century technology is estimated at about $340 million, while the lengthy pre-construction permitting process makes it at least a six-year project.
"We have to get started," Boniface said. "We are looking at a long time before this is done."
Harford's public works staff is reviewing bids from two contractors that could design and build the plant. Land is available to expand on the 13-acre site on Magnolia Road, a few miles south of U.S. 40, and the Army has made 22 acres available for lease nearby.
"This is a serious issue because of the cost," said Robert B. Thomas, county spokesman. "But if we don't expand, there will be an even bigger issue about how to dispose of our trash."