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TODAY’S TOPIC: Plant Turns Garbage to Energy and Dollars

April 3, 1985

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ They come from Los Angeles and New York, from Canada and Germany, to see this city’s 13-year-old trash-to-steam plant, hoping to find how to dispose of their own city’s garbage.

″I should start charging, as an additional revenue source, for tours,″ Mayor Stephen Reed said, jokingly, of the two-furnace facility.

The plant, located on a knoll on the south side of town, can burn 740 tons of garbage daily, the amount that would be produced by a city of 423,000. Harrisburg itself has a population of about 55,000.

The heat produces steam that is sold for revenue. One day officials hope the plant will generate electricity, too.

″We’re going to see a good many of the plants built in this country during the rest of this century,″ said Charles Johnson, technical director of the National Solid Wastes Management Association in Washington.

Although less than 5 percent of the nation’s trash is now hauled to such plants, they could be handling 25 percent of the country’s garbage within 10 years while landfill space continues to diminish, he said.

Getting rid of trash is becoming an acute problem in many communities. In Pennsylvania alone the number of operating landfills has plummeted from more than 1,000 in 1970 to about 115 today. Sites close when they reach capacity or do not meet regulations. New landfills are often blocked by opposition from local residents.

″We are, in fact, promoting trash to steam,″ said David Mashek, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources spokesman. ″They will probably increase in importance in future years.″ Trash-powered facilities are being planned in some suburban Philadelphia counties and in Erie, he said.

The city-run plant in Harrisburg is ″sort of a pioneer″ that has become ″rather famous,″ Johnson said. It is one of about 12 large trash-to-steam plants in the United States that burn more than 500 tons of waste daily.

Trucks pull up to the facility and dump cereal boxes, beer bottles, busted toilet seats and all the other elements of household garbage into a 30-foot deep pit, with refuse spilling over into a holding room.

A grapple lifts the garbage, a ton at a time, and puts it in furnaces heated to 1,800 degrees. Steam produced by the burning material is sent through pipes to the center city. Unused steam is vented at the plant, billowing around the building. The process is not entirely clean - a thick layer of dust settles on metal walkways in the heart of the plant.

For years, money earned from steam sales and dumping charges did not cover operating expenses. The city typically spent $1 million to $2 million annually to subsidize the operation.

Still, Mayor Reed noted that without the plant the city ″would have been paying through the nose″ to discard its trash. Harrisburg had previously dumped its garbage in landfills, open dumps, swine farms and a 40-year-old incinerator.

City officials now are confident the plant will be a money maker. Reed believes it will go ″from our major loss leader to our major profit center.″

″It’s getting easier and easier″ for the city to get trash to burn in the furnaces, said Chuck King, director of the plant. ″As they close the landfills, there are no other alternatives.″

Philadelphia, which is facing a trash disposal crisis, recently began shipping hundreds of tons of refuse to Harrisburg.

Steam sales also are expected to increase.

The plant sold no steam before 1979, when a local utility began to use it in its heating system that serves downtown Harrisburg. Last year, the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant in nearby Steelton also started to purchase steam. Sales are expected to reach nearly $5 million this year.

″The income from the steam generating facility could match revenue generated from all forms of local taxes,″ said Joseph Sheeney, a top aide to the mayor. ″We could be looking at doubling the potential revenue base for the city. It’s going to be a hell of a cushion for future mayors and councils to fight over.″

One key to raising all that cash is the city’s plan to convert much of the steam - 50 percent to 85 percent is still unused - to electricity. Harrisburg is also considering adding a third furnace to the facility.

Although a fire in February damaged one furnace, shutting it down indefinitely, the city’s long-term plans remain in effect.

The plant’s neighbors have complained of noise and dirt and have expressed fear that some of the garbage may include toxic material. ″People have moved,″ said Carolyn Lupkie, who has lived in the area for nearly 50 years. ″Our property values must have gone down terribly.″

But Mrs. Lupkie acknowledges that the city is ″trying hard to run the thing properly″ and said steps taken to reduce the noise have helped ″to a degree.″

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