City says infractions pose no threat
to public health
An 18-month string of permit violations may end with fines levied against Harrisburg’s municipal trash incinerator, state officials said at a meeting June 17.
City officials currently are negotiating with the state Department of Environmental Protection over the amount of the penalty, said Alisa Harris, director of the agency’s environmental advocate office.
During 71 inspections, regulators found 66 violations, ranging from incinerator ash clogging water drains in the plant’s basement to lack of cover for on-site landfills where ash is buried.
At the meeting, environmental and community advocates complained that the uncovered ash was blowing into residential neighborhoods.
Though the claims haven’t been documented, “We have no reason not to believe them,” said Robert Benvin, permit chief for the DEP’s waste management program. “You don’t want incinerator ash blowing around a neighborhood, even if it was safe.”
Dan Lispi, Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed’s assistant for special projects, said the violations represented mostly housekeeping issues. The infractions posed no threat to public health or the environment, he insisted.
The city also has disputed whether some of the state’s findings are really violations, he added. Officials have addressed other problems by changing operations. “We are dealing with things at the incinerator as best we can,” Lispi said.
The penalty talks come as city officials are trying to secure a new, 10-year permit for handling trash at the incinerator’s transfer station. At the station, garbage is sent to the incinerator or loaded onto large trucks and shipped to landfills. The station is allowed to receive up to 985 tons of garbage a day.
At the same time, city officials are weighing new bond issues to pay for renovating the 30-year-old garbage-burning plant at the southern edge of Harrisburg. Under an agreement with state and federal regulators, the incinerator must shut down June 18, 2003, if it is not revamped to meet modern pollution-control standards.
A vote on an initial $17 million bond issue is expected June 24. Another
$92 million would be needed to complete the renovation. The rebuilt incinerator would burn up to 820 tons of trash per day, according to the DEP.
The plant is owned by the Harrisburg Authority, an agency established to undertake capital projects, and operated by the city. It employs about 60 people and burns roughly 400 tons of trash daily from the city and surrounding areas. The plant also generates electricity for sale to Allentown-based PPL Corp.
The current trash-handling permit expires at the end of June. The city applied for a new permit in October. But the move was met with silence from the activists who typically battle any city efforts to continue incinerator operations.
Rather than renew the 10-year permit, the DEP proposed extending the existing permit for 120 days and soliciting public comment on the longer renewal. A formal hearing will be scheduled in late July, said Harris.
During the 120-day extension, the agency and the city will settle on the fine for past violations, as well as procedures for preventing future problems, Harris said. In 2000, the city paid $7,500 to resolve earlier violations.
The city’s biggest challenge will be covering the ash put into on-site landfills, said Benvin. Big chunks of unburnt metal stick out of the ash, frustrating efforts to bury it with soil. The incinerator’s landfill must be covered every day, but currently it sits uncovered, Benvin said.
About 30 people attended the June 17 meeting, which lasted two and a half hours. Anti-incinerator banners lay on tables next to several attendees.
Several people chastised city and state officials for taking the incinerator’s problems too lightly and ignoring its impact on public health. Activists also warned of the plant’s dioxin emissions, a potential carcinogen released during trash burning.
Lispi denied the incinerator represented a serious threat.
“You would be in more danger living next to a crowded highway than you would living next to this plant,” he said.