Concord trash-to-energy plant eyes permit, may have to start all over again

  • Dan Parkinson, a crane operator at Wheelabrator Concord, works at his post at the company's facility in Concord on Friday afternoon, May 2, 2014 like he has for the last 15 years. He takes trash brought in and drops it into the furnace a crane full at a time. Parkinson was one of the employees honored for his 25 years with the company during a celebration on Friday. Monitor file

  • Crane operator Dan Parkinson maneuvers a grapple to move trash to the feed chute which leads to the boiler at the Wheelabrator facility in Penacook on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Parkinson has been with the company almost 27 years. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • A grapple crane is used to move trash at the Wheelabrator facility in Penacook on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • A peek inside the furnace at the Wheelabrator Concord facility during a tour reveals a red hot process. Monitor file

  • The Concord Wheelabrator plant is seen on Nov. 10, 2017. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Concord is moving through the process of getting its emissions permit renewed – a couple of years late and not without some opposition. But if its plan to burn construction debris goes ahead as it hopes, the company will have to do this all over again soon.

The permit, known as Title V, is issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and administered by the state Department of Environmental Services. It gives the plant permission to emit certain levels of pollutants as part of normal operations, ranging from carbon monoxide gas in the exhaust to lead, mercury and dioxins in unburned ash.

The seven-story-tall plant in Penacook has been burning municipal trash since 1989. Over the past eight years, according to DES data, it has burned between 190,000 and 195,000 tons of waste annually. About 52,000 tons of ash annually are left over after burning and taken to a Wheelabrator landfill in Shrewsbury, Mass.

The plant produces up to 14 megawatts of electricity, which is enough for about 14,000 homes, although 1.5 megawatts are used to operate the plant.

The current Title V permit was issued in 2009 and ran out in 2014, and the plant has been operating under a waiver since then. DES has begun the process of deciding whether to renew the permit. Public comments are accepted through Tuesday. Then, DES has 30 working days, or roughly six weeks, to make a decision about whether to renew the permit; that decision can be appealed.

However, DES is also in the process of drawing up rules for the plant to burn what is known as C&D, or certain types of debris left over from construction or demolition of buildings.

If Wheelabrator applies to burn C&D along with trash, then the owner will have to get an entirely new Title V permit, which would start this entire process over again.

Plant officials say they need the option of adding wood and construction debris to the mix of trash in winter, when the amount of trash declines, and also tends to be wet from snow and thus hard to burn. The company says construction debris, which has higher energy content than household trash, can replace propane that is sometimes used to keep the incinerator going.

Opponents to the idea note that construction debris carries concern about adding more toxins, such as lead from paint, into the fuel mix, raising concerns that more toxins will be released into the environment either from the smokestack or in the ash.

Opponents also showed up last week for a public hearing on the current Title V permit.

Among the questions raised was why there isn’t more continuous monitoring of smokestack emissions for a wider variety of potentially dangerous products, said Cathy Corkery, director of the New Hampshire chapter of the Sierra Club, which has long expressed concerns about the plant.

Other issues raised, she said, were components of trash not included under the Title V permit, such as small amounts of radioactive waste in such things as discarded smoke alarms, and bioaccumulation, or the fact that some materials released in very small amounts year after year might build up over time in living things until they reach potentially dangerous levels.

The Penacook facility, just off Exit 17 of Interstate 93, is the only trash-to-energy plant in the state; Wheelabrator closed the only other one, in Claremont, several years ago.

The plant was owned by Waste Management before it sold off its Hampton-based Wheelabrator division to investors in 2014.

Tractor trailers bring trash into the loading bay throughout the year, although the facility can store enough garbage in its enormous pit to keep going for three days without a refill over a holiday weekend.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)