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Incinerator could be latest service cut in Red Wing

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Red Wing incinerator
The stack in the foreground carries emissions from burning. The Red Wing incinerator was built before tougher federal clean air standards were enacted.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

What seemed like a good idea in the early 1980s -- build a municipal facility that would pull recyclable material from the garbage residents generate and then burn the rest to create usable steam -- has become a target in this budget-strapped city.

The city's 28-year-old garbage incinerator was one of the first in a movement in Minnesota to get energy from waste, an effort to recycle, cut energy bills and reduce pressure on landfills. 

But it's costing Red Wing $500,000 a year, and revenue from property taxes and state aid is under pressure. So city officials are looking for a way out.

"We believe so much in being green and staying green," said city council President Michael Schultz. "But the cost of going green is so high. I think everybody sees the good side to it, but people struggle the money side. And especially if you're a taxpayer in Red Wing, you're supporting that incinerator."  

In the past several years, Red Wing has made a number of cuts in the services it provides residents. Swimming pool hours, street maintenance, police patrolling, snow removal and more have been curtailed. But with state aid in jeopardy and big property tax increases politically untenable, budget cutting is still under way, and the incinerator losses make a big target.

Red Wing does generate revenue from the garbage-burner but not enough for it to break even. "We all know it costs more to burn garbage than burying," said Rick Moskwa, who, as public works director, has the job of trying to make it work financially.

Over the years, his department has added ways to make the incinerator burn more cleanly by separating the things that just won't burn. Bins and dumpsters are filled with material pulled from the garbage - tangles of Christmas lights in one, orange extension cords in another. 

Tons of that material can be sold, which helps offset the taxpayer's support of the solid waste operation.

"The wire we pull out we also sell as a commodity, we get a $1 a pound for any drop cord," said Jeff Schneider, deputy director of solid waste. 

Lots of aluminum cans end up in the garbage, too, but Red Wing's front end fuel cleaning equipment culls them out through a system of separators and conveyer belts. This front-end processor is running at less than capacity.

That means the main ways to improve the cost effectiveness are to find more garbage and to find more customers for the steam. Both have proved difficult.  

Jeff Schneider
Jeff Schneider, deputy director of solid waste.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

The incinerator processes 20,000 tons of burnable waste a year. 

Moskwa has tried to find ways to increase that amount, trying to find garbage haulers and towns that agree to higher costs in the short run. 

"We have communities in Goodhue County that have partnered with us for many years because their councils believed it was the environmentally right thing to do," he said. The state could make new business deals like that easier, he said, by requiring that more garbage go to incinerators.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has what it calls a solid waste hierarchy, which encourages the use of incinerators like Red Wing's. At the bottom of the pyramid sits the landfills. Landfills are the most used, but also the least desirable, according the state. 

Metals for recycling
Metals awaiting recycling at the Red Wing facility. The city sells to AMG Alliance, a steel materials buyer in town.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

Incinerators that produce energy, like Red Wing's, are the next largest. The best and least-used option is not producing waste at all, by reducing and reusing. 

Moskwa says the state could encourage garbage efficiency by requiring that more cities, including those in the seven-county metro area, send garbage to be processed at Red Wing and other places that don't operate at capacity. 

But garbage haulers can keep their customer fees lower by paying landfill fees, not incinerator charges, which holds down the amount of garbage coming to Red Wing's incinerator.

Red Wing is also hindered by having only one customer for its steam, the historic tannery S.B. Foot, just next door to the incinerator.

"S.B. Foot is the only consumer of our steam, Schneider said. If we don't sell them steam it's blown off the roof."

As it stands, Schultz thinks the best option is to find a partner like Xcel Energy to burn Red Wing's processed waste after recycle material has been taken out, closing the city's burner. But that solution will require negotions with the utility over costs and the quality of the garbage.

Red Wing is not the only city to face this dilemma.  Fergus Falls shut down its incinerator when it lost its main client for the steam it produced.    The state of Minnesota used steam to heat and cool the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center. The hospital was closed in 2008.  Once government support vaporized, the incinerator had trouble competing with landfills.  "You can't make money on other governments. You're competing on a public service,"  says city engineer Dan Edwards.