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County Council, March 22

Still deliberating over the Materials Recycling Facility
Could the new technology be better?
Warwick Jones

County Council is dithering over a decision to move ahead with it Material Recycling Facility (MRF). Yes, the facility will be costly with a tag of $30 million or thereabouts and the decision has to be the right one. But yikes, it has been deliberating now for some years. Last year it decided to put the project out for bidding and yesterday, the Finance Committee was to vote on the staff recommendations in awarding the contracts.

Council members Schweers, Darby and Johnson were in favor of moving ahead and voting on the contracts. The other members were not and voted for a 30 day deferral. In this period, staff was to gather more information, from Berkeley County and any other source, to aid in a decision.

We agree with Council member Schweers. The Council has deliberated long enough and he called the deferral “incredible” and “government at its worst”. We recall a number of presentations over the last few years and the main issue has been whether the County stayed with proven technology in designing the MRF, or took a chance on technology that would save or earn the County more money, but was unproven. Staff in its recommendation wanted to stay with proven technology and award contracts for the MRF construction and the equipment. The value of these contracts was not revealed at last night’s meeting but certainly were known by Council members who broke out into an executive session to discuss the issue.

Council member Qualey spoke first in seeking a deferral. He sought a deferral some 6 months ago arguing then that something good may come out of an agreement between Re Power and Berkeley County. Maybe something was revealed in the executive session last night, but barring such, we don’t know what has changed in recent months that Council would defer a decision on a contract. The idea of a deferral followed on a presentation by Mr. Andy Quigley, the head of Environmental Management.

Mr. Quigley was clearly in favor of sticking with known technology and stated that the planned MRF would have “the state of the art technology” and optical scanners to facilitate the separation of the components of the recyclables. He cautioned about the use of new technology that is claimed to be able to separate unsorted trash. It is unproven and the viability is uncertain. (This was also the opinion of Waste Management, probably the nation’s largest in the waste disposal industry, when it gave a presentation to Council some 2 years ago.) One of the important final products in the new technology are pellets composed largely of plastic. They would be used as a fuel. But according to Mr. Quigley, a special furnace is necessary for combustion and the pellets could not necessarily be sold to a power utility. The inference was they could be hard to sell. Waste Management in its presentation in 2015 stated that the paper and cardboard separated from the trash in the Re power process would be contaminated by waste and impossible or difficult to sell too.

If there was anything that caused rethinking by Council, it may have been that Berkeley County is considering (still?) the new technology provided by Re power. We know Berkeley County had been
contemplating Re Power’s technology for some time but may be it is now more serious. Berkeley County has no made a financial commitment but the interest that it has expressed stimulated thought on Charleston Council. Could something be learned from Berkeley County? Should Charleston wait to view the success of a plant built in Berkeley County? Could Charleston send any of its recyclables to Berkeley County? Mr. Quigley was skeptical and stated that there was no plant in the US that was utilizing Re power technology. But Council was not skeptical, or if not skeptical, it considered a delay of 30 days a small price to pay for ensuring that the County makes the right decision.

But even given a deferral for 30 days, will the County muster the confidence to move to a facility using Re power technology? As some Council members noted, as did Mr. Quigley, it could be years before the success of a Re power plant in Berkeley County can be measured. Charleston County can’t wait that long.

Mr. Quigley gave a very informative presentation. He said the MRF as in the proposed contract before the Committee could treat 52,000 tones a waste a year on a one shift basis, and double this on a two shift basis. It should have a life of at least 50 years. At a 40,000 tons a year rate, the cost of treatment should be $100 a ton. There would be about 34,000 tons of saleable product which would net about $149 a ton. About 6,000 tons of final products would not be saleable and would go to landfill. The cost of the transport would be about $38 a ton. Overall, the MRF should generate a surplus of $838,000 a year.

These estimates compare with the present cost of about $1.4 million a year and minimal revenue. Presently recyclables are sent to Horry County for processing. The processing contract runs until July 31 this year but can be extended for 18 months through three 6 month options. And from the tone of Mr. Quigley’s comments, Horry County is not happy with the contract and if it were to be renewed, the charges would be much higher.

Maybe something came out of the Executive session that we know nothing of. But the reaction of Council member Schweers suggests there was nothing new. Barring new information, we’d expect the County to move ahead with the staff recommendation and approve the contract with Mashburn and Machinex, for construction and equipment respectively. To deliberate for many years, call for RFPs, receive bids, receive a positive staff recommendation, and then change its mind, does not generate a lot of confidence in Council.

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