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Washington, Ramsey counties spend $24.4M to purchase garbage facility

Washington County is the new co-owner of a garbage-processing facility.

The Washington County Board on Sept. 22 approved four resolutions related to the acquisition of the Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) waste-processing facility. The Ramsey County Board approved similar resolutions the same day, as the counties are partnering on the purchase and future operation.

For nearly 20 years the Newport facility has been the primary source of refuse-derived fuel for public entities and some private garbage haulers in Washington County.

Washington and Ramsey counties have utilized the facility for waste processing for years, but the current three-year contract ends in 2015. The company planned to sell, a move that prompted the counties’ purchase and creation of the new Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy Board, according to Washington County Senior Environmental Program Manager Judy Hunter.

The state requires that public entities reduce the amount of municipal solid waste produced between now and 2030. By that time, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants to see at least 75 percent of a county’s waste being recycled.

When garbage is brought to the Newport site, all of the waste is shredded and hauled by truck to Xcel Energy-owned power plants in Red Wing and Mankato. The material is burned at the power plants. Burning the waste means less is diverted to landfills, officials say.

Purchasing the Newport facility gives Washington County the opportunity to better meet the MPCA directive, but it also allows implementation of a designation that requires all waste haulers that serve the county to bring their waste to the facility, instead of bringing it to privately owned landfills.

Prior to 1993, haulers in Washington and Ramsey counties were required to bring their waste to the Newport plant, Hunter said. The tipping fees assessed to haulers covered the operations of the facility, but a 1993 law change allowed haulers the option of disposing waste as they saw fit. Many opted to use landfills, as landfill fees are typically less than processing fees.

From 1993-2014, the two counties paid more than $227 million to make up the cost of operations that would otherwise have been paid through tipping fees. Washington County’s total over that period is about $61 million, Hunter said.

To entice haulers to use the RRT facility, the counties implemented a hauler rebate. Together, the counties pay about $8.4 million in rebates for 300,000 tons of material. Washington County’s share of that rebate is about $2.26 million.

“We’ve been making up the difference by providing the hauler rebate,” Hunter said. “That’s how we’re getting them in the door. We made it so their cost is similar to what it would cost to bring the same truck to a landfill.”

If the facility is publically owned and operated, the law does allow the Newport site to be designated as the site where all waste from the two counties must be processed. That designation process will take about two years, Hunter said.

The economic impact will also be beneficial, she said. There are more than 500 jobs associated with the collection of trash and recyclables in the two counties, and another 60 jobs at the Newport facility. In addition, Xcel employs about 60 people at its two power plants.

But Washington County and Ramsey County officials have given guidance on how they would like to see resource recovery and recycling processes increase and change in the coming years. That vision, Hunter said, could mean creation of as many as 4,000 new jobs, with businesses that use recycled materials to make new products.

Emerging technology and the possibility of implementing some of those processes in the area would lead to more jobs, as well. At the Newport facility alone, Hunter said, as many as 110 construction and 64 operating jobs could be created by implementing equipment to separate recyclables and food waste. Nearly 800 more jobs could be available through construction and operation of a privately-owned anaerobic digester and a privately-owned gasification facility.

Opponents trash counties’ purchase

Not everyone agrees with the purchase.

Two Red Wing residents spoke out against the county’s plans Sept. 22, citing concerns with the incineration of MSW in their own community.

“The big problem for me is, I live in Red Wing and you’re landfilling in my lungs,” Carol Overland said.

Newport City Council member Dan Lund also voiced concerns with the proposal because he said landfills are more environmentally friendly than “burning garbage.” Saying that burning the waste is worse than burning coal, Lund said well-maintained landfills are a better option for waste disposal.

He also brought up the smell that is generated from the Newport facility.

“You may be aware that the facility in Newport does not have the equipment to cover the smell,” he said. “So I’m going to go back to the city, and I’m going to push for some ordinance changes that require some filtration … and I do believe that your plan for mandating that all garbage come there may trigger that policy. I’m going to be pushing for that.”

Though Lund is opposed to the facility, the majority of the Newport City Council is not. A resolution was passed at the Sept. 17 Newport City Council meeting that states support for the county’s participation in the purchase of the facility. The resolution asks that a member of the Newport City Council be named as an ex-officio member to the Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy Board. The resolution passed on a 3-2 vote, with Lund casting one of the dissenting votes.

Others support the purchase.

David Domack, general manager of Tennis Sanitation and Recycling in St. Paul Park, said in his 20-plus years of experience he has watched as the amount of material in landfills has grown, even with the increased focus on recycling.

“We’re seeing this goal (for recycling) progress,” he said, “yet we’re not dealing with the long-term goals of the end product. ... Where does it go? Does it go out of state, then? Where does it go? We can only recycle so much. There is still going to be garbage, and incineration is still our best option.”

Washington County commissioners admitted their early skepticism with the plan, but for many reasons each commissioner said the purchase makes sense for the future.

Commissioner Karla Bigham, whose district includes Newport, said she is excited by the number of jobs the purchase could bring to her area.

“I don’t think that any of us wanted to be in the garbage-processing business,” Bigham said.

However, when looking at the jobs that could be lost if the plant was sold to another entity, and the number of jobs that could be created as waste management technology moves ahead, Bigham felt purchasing the Newport facility was “the right thing to do for the jobs.”

If the plant closed, she said, Newport would also lose a sizable amount of money in property taxes. New bylaws will guarantee that those funds will not be jeopardized, she said.

“I’m committed to working with the city of Newport on this topic. It’s important for the area,” Bigham said.

District 3 Commissioner Gary Kriesel, who voted against the proposal last May, said he has since changed his mind. His concerns were that other counties were not being held to the same standards for processing waste as Washington and Ramsey counties have been. However, after a meeting with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and a subsequent letter affirming the agency’s intent to make the other metro area counties equally accountable, Kriesel changed his position.

The Washington County Board voted unanimously to amend the joint powers agreement of the Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy Board, then endorsed the purchase of the facility.

Washington County is responsible for 27 percent, or $6,588,000, of the $24.4 million purchase. Ramsey County will cover the remainder.

Washington County will cover its obligation through an internal loan from the County Environmental Charge fund. No property tax levy will be used for the purchase.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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