Livingston: King County faces crossroads for waste disposal

County is dealing with the expected closure of its Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in 10 to 12 years.

At lunch the other day with a friend, the conversation went to garbage, literally. Since he knows that I serve on King County’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee as an interested resident from Federal Way, my friend thought a little trash talk would be fun.

What he wanted to talk about were his remembrances of going to the “dump” as a child with his dad and whether our trash is still going to dumps like he remembered.

Many of us have trash stories about the trashman coming to the house to hand collect the cans in the back, for example, or using a burn can. As a youngster in my hometown, I remember periodically going to the town incinerator.

My memory is kind of cool because we got to throw trash on a concrete floor and watch the workers push that trash into the mouth of a giant furnace that was belching smoke and fire. For a 6-year-old, this was really fun and far more entertaining than any trip to the “dump.” Years later, the incinerator closed because of the pollution it was generating, and the costs of improving it were more expensive than building a new county dump.

Where does King County’s waste go, and since we as people are very good at generating waste, what is the best way to manage its disposal? Turns out those are questions that King County is wrestling with at the moment. The county is dealing with the expected closure of its Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in about 10 to 12 years when it reaches permitted capacity.

After a discussion on current disposal options, the preferred choices that remain are the modern versions of landfilling and incineration. In either case, the disposal of waste that is not recyclable or compostable means it is going to highly-regulated facilities that meet all the federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements, like King County’s Cedar Hills Regional Landfill, or an incinerator that is designed to operate as a Waste to Energy (WTE) facility. Landfilling and WTE as disposal options are viable and they are always working on improving their pollution controls, service capabilities and being in regulatory compliance.

Figuring out what the King County Council will do is anybody’s guess. Both options have their pros and cons, but at the end of the day, both are good at what they are designed to do. It is easier to concede that they are relatively equal in capability, which allows me to focus on the economics, infrastructure needs, lifecycle capacity, operational flexibility and cost to the actual user.

At each solid waste advisory meeting – sitting on the sidelines watching the discussions of the committee and listening to every word – there are a variety of self-important grumpy-looking people who attend because of the interests they represent. They are the staff of various King County Council members whose bosses will ultimately make the decision, as well as industry consultants who are lobbying behind the scenes for a specific outcome.

Building a WTE incinerator, sized for King County’s needs, in today’s economy comes with an estimated price tag of $1.1 billion and many years of expensive upgrades. A cash cow for the WTE industry. Not so much for the actual ratepayer. If it were to be built, it would be paid for with revenue bonds, which become a pass-through cost to our personal disposal bill.

My friend wondered if establishing a new landfill would be just as expensive. I said no because there are three landfills operating in Eastern Washington and Oregon and one in Western Idaho capable of receiving King County solid waste for the next 100 years. Also, the start-up resources and building rail-haul connections into the system are estimated to be in the range of $5 million.

The annual costs for rail-haul and landfilling outside of King County are projected to be near $43 million, which is just slightly higher than the $41 million projected for WTE operations. However, the start-up and capital costs for landfilling are about $1.1 billion less. Yes, our solid waste service bill will go up for out-of-county landfilling, but the increase is significantly smaller than the increase needed to build, operate, maintain and own a WTE facility.

My friend also asked: What about the possibility of the revenues from the WTE facility being sufficient to cover its costs and or generate a profit? Nice idea, but not even close. According to one of the consultants involved in the process, the revenues from energy sales may achieve $700 million over the life of the facility. However, there is also a concern that WTE will become less competitive or relevant as an energy resource as markets transition toward sustainability and personal generating capacity.

So, my friend recapped the conversation this way: Landfilling and rail-haul will cost me less than WTE. Both options are viable and the merits of each need to be understood. Logically, what gets implemented should favor the cost concerns of household users, but it may not. The King County Council will continue being lobbied by special interests that are looking for a payday. It appears that the WTE interests are not concerned about the costs to the actual ratepayer and this selection process will continue being debated for several more years – what a mess!

I agreed.

Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com.

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