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Waste-to-energy is more complicated than The Sun lets on

Dante Swinton, an organizer with The Energy Justice Network, leads college students on a "toxic tour" of polluting sites in Baltimore. The Energy Justice Network always starts the tour at the Wheelabrator incinerator, which was long known as BRESCO.

I was dismayed two days in a row to see The Sun tackle a very complicated issue by looking at only a small portion of the problem.

As a chemical engineer, with a background in recycling and the related technology of solid waste collection and disposal, I believe that I am in a position to know a fair bit more of the subject than either your editorial: "Cash to burn trash" (Dec. 18) or the article "A top polluter counts as green" (Dec. 17) bothered to mention.

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In the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that the casual way that solid waste landfills throughout the country were operated allowed landfill leachate to percolate into ground water, thereby poisoning it. New and expensive landfill management rules were issued, and recycling became of new importance as a more environmentally friendly and lower cost alternative. Municipal solid waste incinerators, renamed resource recovery facilities, were considered an economical part of the solution. Get rid of solid waste, generate electricity, make money.

Baltimore already had a facility that burned fossil fuel to generate steam, which was piped throughout downtown to heat and provide heat to buildings. It was old and was a generator of air pollution. It was decided to shut down the old furnaces and build a new, much larger and more modern trash incinerator. The new facility would do many things: destroy wastes, provide recovery of reusable materials from the ash, generate salable electricity and and feed the city's steam pipe system. Get rid of trash, avoid poison in landfill leachate, and make money by selling steam and electricity, and avoiding fuel and land fill costs.

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Today, the flue gas clean-up technology of decades earlier is no longer adequate. Therefore, we should solve the problem by closing down the incinerator, right?. Sorry, I think The Sun forgot a few things, such as, for example: What shall the city now do with all that unprocessed solid waste? Where would the money to do so come from? How would the city deal with the hazardous materials in the solid waste that incineration destroys? Where would the city obtain the steam to feed its necessary steam utility system? How would the city offset the loss of revenue from the sale of steam, electricity, and fees for disposing of solid wastes from non-city sources?

Not so simple a problem. The issue is not how to generate greener or cheaper electricity. It is how to deal with municipal solid wastes. Perhaps all that is needed is newer and more efficient flue gas clean up equipment.

Please do your homework more thoroughly in the future. I would help, but I am long retired.

Sidney Rankin

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