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Up in Smoke

Harrisburg’s waste to energy to bankruptcy saga

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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On October 12, Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, filed for bankruptcy. The move took most of America by surprise—​

Photo of energy plant in Harrisburg

The incinerator that sank the capital of Pennsylvania

AP / Carolyn Kaster

headlines on CNN and the Drudge Report played the story as breaking news. It was not. Harrisburg’s failure has been so long in the offing that last June the state legislature passed a law forbidding the city from declaring bankruptcy until July 2012. (The city will challenge this law in court.) People in Pennsylvania have been waiting for Harrisburg to go broke for a long time.

Harrisburg’s financial ruin has long been assured, but not for any of the usual reasons. There are no runaway pensions eating up the budget or dirty officials embezzling funds. The city’s tax base has not hollowed out like Detroit’s. Instead, Harrisburg was doomed by a single project: a waste-to-energy incinerator that has left a city  with an annual budget of $55 million some $280 million in debt. That’s a debt load of $6,000 for each of the 49,500 men, women, and children in town, an amount so staggering it was impossible for the city to sustain it. (The saga has been chronicled by John Luciew of the local Patriot Times for several years in a tour de force of reportage.)

Harrisburg’s runaway incinerator is a compendium of failure​—​a combination of fashion-based policy, bad decisions by a local government, and schizophrenic federal mandates.

The story begins in 1967, when Harrisburg contracted with a local engineering firm to conduct a study of its waste-disposal needs. This was a period in American life when garbage disposal was just beginning to take shape as an engineering field. Prior to the mid-’60s, more than half the towns in America had no long-term plan to deal with solid waste; they simply found the cheapest available land and dumped their refuse or buried it in landfills. The proper planning and management of dumps and landfills had yet to be refined, and many of these sites were considered hazards. It was common throughout the period to hear garbage horror stories, like the great fire at the Kenilworth dump in Washington, D.C., or the toxic-waste scare at Love Canal in New York.

Then the federal government stepped in. Incinerators had been around since before the turn of the century: The Army built the first American incinerator in 1885. And while they had been popular in big cities during the 1930s, they fell out of favor over the next 30 years. As the federal government began grappling with waste management, it decided to give the incinerator industry a little boost to help revive it. To that end, the 1970 Clean Air Act put an end to open-burning at landfills, making landfills more costly to operate and incinerators an attractive alternative. It was not terribly surprising that Harrisburg’s consultants recommended the town build its own incinerator.

An incinerator works about the way you’d imagine: Trash goes into a furnace, mechanical grates churn it, and intense heat reduces it to ash, which is ejected out the side while gaseous emissions are pumped out of a stack. Harrisburg’s incinerator was built for $12 million and boasted a total theoretical burn capacity of 500 tons per day. It opened for business on October 10, 1972.

From the start, the plant didn’t work very well. There were frequent explosions and unintended fires. Ash kept gumming up the mechanism, and whenever the metal grates jammed, the entire system had to be shut down. It’s unclear how much money the operation cost the city during those early years, but it was a major announcement when the town’s mayor declared, in 1981, that he had gotten the incinerator out of the red. Later evidence suggests that the mayor was exaggerating: The plant continued running at a loss until 1985. Either way, the expenses piled up: In addition to the initial cost, and the revenue hole, and higher-than-expected maintenance, the debt had to be refinanced. A few years later, the city had to float a $25 million bond just to clean out the incinerator’s landfill. Locals dubbed the plant’s 80-foot-tall pile of ash “Mt. Ashmore.” 

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