Trash burning plant future at stake: Matt's Memo

There's a big community decision looming about the future of trash in Onondaga County. The contract for Covanta to operate the Onondaga County trash burning plant on Rock Cut road expires in May of 2015. Negotiations are underway between this national company that specializes in waste to energy plants and Onondaga County. There's a key meeting this afternoon where the County Comptroller's office will present a long awaited final audit of the operations of the agency in charge of trash in the greater Syracuse area known as OCRRA.

OCRRA stands for Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency. You've seen the acronym on your blue bins that you use for recycling glass, metal and paper at home. One of the tricky pieces to the future of the plant comes into play because our community far exceeded any predicted expectation of levels of recycling. That has left the plant often operating in a level beneath full capacity. Even though it pumps out enough electricity to power some 30,000 homes it could do better with more garbage coming into the plant.

That unused capacity has opened the door to the idea of accepting trash from Cortland County to be burned in Onondaga. If implemented the proposed plan would in turn allow Onondaga to ship the ash from the plant back to Cortland County landfills.

During the last six months the County Comptroller's office has conducted an extensive audit of OCRRA's operations including the 1992 deal with Covanta to operate the plant, the 2003 refinancing of the plant and Onondaga County's management of waste over the last twenty years. That information is being presented to the board of the resource recovery agency so it is better informed as it shapes the negotiations and decision making on the plant's future.

If there's no new contract with Covanta it can buy the plant for $1 from Onondaga County. The county does not want that. The county prefers a continuation of the public private arrangement that currently exists. There is also the possible use of emminent domain by Onondaga County in which case taxpayers would have to pay Covanta a fair market price for the property which would likely be tens of millions of dollars.

There's a lot at stake. Tax dollars, environmental issues and public policy on trash and recycling. The audit will be discussed during an executive session of the OCRRA board this afternoon. The public will learn about the contents of the report in a week or so.


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