Politicians, community leaders consider proposals for White Street Landfill

by Jordan Green

Politicians, community leaders consider proposals for White Street LandfillDuring the Greensboro election campaign every one of the at-large candidates and those seeking district seats representing the city’s east side have pledged to not reopen the White Street Landfill to municipal solid waste, an initiative pushed by retiring Councilman Mike Barber.

While the additional cost of trucking Greensboro’s garbage to a landfill in Montgomery County has been a subject of debate, a consensus has developed along the campaign trail that Greensboro must start planning a less expensive alternative for disposing of its waste that does not harm the health of neighboring residents and, if possible, puts people to work.

As the candidates hone their positions on the campaign trail, two companies have begun courting residents of northeast Greensboro near the White Street Landfill, and members of the current council have exchanged barbed comments over how to solicit alternative waste disposal ideas from private companies.

On Oct. 20, members of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, a group that was instrumental in closing White Street Landfill to household waste, packed council chambers for a presentation by Carl E. Lebby Jr., the president of a company called Ulturnagen that was formed in April. Lebby read aloud from a letter proposing an “alternative energy demonstration project” that would use plasma gasification technology to process the city’s garbage, export 397,500 megawatts to the power grid and create 200 new jobs.

Lebbe asked the council to pass a resolution in support of the project. That did not sit well with Barber, who pointed out that the council had already approved a request for proposals at the request of a second company called Cico LLC that is led by former Councilman Bob Mays. Barber wondered aloud whether the new motion would circumvent the process already under way to solicit proposals.

Barber said that Mayor Yvonne Johnson “spoke to someone and had them walk” Lebbe around the landfill.

“First of all, I made no arrangements to walk anybody anywhere,” Johnson shot back.

Members of Concerned Citizens, filling two or three rows of seats, cheered.

Questioned by Barber about whether anybody from his company had been escorted around the landfill, Lebbe responded, “Not to my knowledge.”

Barber dropped the name of Jim Kee, who won election to the District 2 city council seat on Tuesday, suggesting that the candidate himself might have given one of the company’s representatives a tour of the landfill.

In retort to Barber’s protestations, District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small said that Lebbe’s proposal was a different approach, and that the request for proposals was specifically for the White Street Landfill area.

“This is a regional approach,” Bellamy-Small said. “They are bringing in nine other counties to be partner. We talk about regionalism… okay, this is what this is. This gives Greensboro an opportunity to be a leader with Winston-Salem, High Point and the surrounding counties…. This is a different proposal, a different way of looking at this than what we’ve looked at before. This takes White Street off of the table and gives these people the relief that they need to not worry about White Street being opened again.”

More cheers rose up from the gallery. “This has been very clever,” Barber quipped, but the council would vote to move forward with the request for proposals, amended to include regional alternatives. It narrowly passed, with Mayor Johnson, Councilwoman Bellamy-Small, Councilwoman Goldie Wells and Councilman Robbie Perkins voting on the losing side.

Kee was next in rotation during the speakers from the floor segment of the meeting.

“I’llend by stating the position of the citizens of District 2,” he said.“We will not allow the reopening of the White Street Landfill.”

Keesaid in an interview last month that he had not escorted anyone fromUlturnagen around the landfill, but he had met with representatives ofthe other company, Cico LLC, at the landfill. Kee spoke favorably aboutUlturnagen’s proposal and the plasma gasification technology that itwould use.

“Notoxins would be emitted into the atmosphere,” he said. “That does notinvolve reopening the White Street Landfill. They’re looking at usingthe Dell site. It would create numerous jobs. This process will allowfor the extraction of trash from the White Street Landfill.”

DespiteKee and Bellamy-Small’s suggestions that Ulturnagen would operatesomewhere other than the White Street Landfill, a company presentationto the city council in late July, proposes to do just that. Under theheading, “Immediate Economic Impacts,” a PowerPoint presentationreferences “establishing the Greensboro Energy Complex at the formerWhite Street Landfill that will transform the area (nearly 1,000 acres)socially and economically.”

Lebbe’sOct. 20 pitch also sweetened the deal for the city considerably from afinancial standpoint, compared to his presentation in July.

At the recent presentation, Mayor Johnson asked Lebbe what the project would cost the city.

“It’sno cost to the city,” Lebbe replied. Yet in the PowerPoint presentationmade to the council in July, Ulturnagen states that it would need touse the city bond rating to finance construction and states that thecity would pick up the tab for health hazard and environmental studiesfor the facility. Lebbe could not be reached for comment about thisstory.

A privateCanadian company, Plasco, currently operates a plasma gasificationpilot project that processes 85 tons of waste per day in Ottawa, andhas signed a contract to operate a 200-ton per day plant in Red Deer,Alberta.

Severalmunicipalities and county governments have explored the possibility ofprocessing their waste through plasma gasification technology. The mostprominent may be Los Angeles, whose bureau of sanitation submitted areport in June concluding that the city would no longer pursue thetechnology.

St.Lucie County in Florida, with a population of 265,108, is movingforward with plans to begin processing its waste with a plasmagasification plant by 2011.

Thecounty started looking for an alternative to burying or incineratingits solid waste in 2004, Assistant Solid Waste Director Ron Robertssaid in an interview on Monday. The county solicited proposals from 126companies and organizations for models that fit the criteria of beingobservably proven, in commercial operation, economically viable andenvironmentally friendly.

“Afterthree years and 7,000 pages of information, we found that plasmagasification was the only technology that made sense for us,” Robertssaid. The county then put out a request for qualifications, and onlyone company, Atlanta-based Geoplasma, responded.

AsRoberts described it, plasma gasification plants essentially zapgarbage with an electrical arc at temperatures of up to 10,000 degreesFarenheit inside a foot and a half-thick ceramic shell and reduces itto electricity, steam and slag that can be made into paver bricks. Incomparison, incinerators run at about 800 degrees. Roberts said theplant requires about a third of the energy it produces to operate, withthe remainder available for export.

Roberts acknowledged that the technology is relatively untested in the US.

“InAsia right now there are probably 15 plants using standard gasificationor plasma gasification,” he said. “In the United Kingdom there areprobably nine gasification plants. The paradigm shift has alreadyoccurred from incineration and landfilling. The United States is at thebottom of the curve, in my opinion.”

Theother proposal is being floated by Cico LLC, a company led by formerGreensboro City Councilman Bob Mays. Under Cico’s model, recycleablematerial would be culled from solid waste in two separate steps, andwhat was left would be broken down through a process calledbioconversion that uses water and bacteria to break down matter insidea giant container. To sell residents on the plan, Mays said the companywould take up to $1 million per year in revenue derived from theoperation and plough it into an economic development nonprofitcontrolled by neighborhood leaders.

PaulG. Gilmer, a licensed real estate broker who lives close enough to thelandfill to see it from his bedroom window when the leaves are off thetrees, went before the city council with Mays in mid-September to askthe city to issue a request for proposals.

“Eventhough I have strong reservations about reopening the landfill to MSW,I’m a realist and I know that if this doesn’t happen this year or next,it will happen because of the sheer cost of not opening it,” Gilmersaid. “When this occurs it will be without any input or control from myneighborhood.”

RalphJohnson, the co-chair of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, islisted as a member of Cico’s project committee in materials the companysubmitted to the city, but his remarks before council fell short of aringing endorsement.

“Ifthere’s any projects that may affect the citizens and health and thingsin east Greensboro, I need to hear about it because there’s been awhole lot of miscommunication with the neighborhoods, and there’s a lotof mistrust,” he said. “We really don’t know who to believe. You know,you hear a lot of plans being made for east Greensboro, but whathappens a lot of times is that we get the short end of the stick. I’vebeen listening to a lot of proposals that’s been presented.”

YVONNE JOHNSON Most candidates for Greensboro City Council have pledged to keep the White Street Landfill closed to household waste, but two proposals for alternative solid- waste disposal have been proposed, and the new council will have to make a deci- sion. (photo by Brian Clarey)