OCEAN CITY — Despite concerns raised by residents and threats of boycotts from some outside sources, resort officials this week approved a renewal of the town’s contract with a waste-to-energy company to dispose of the tons of trash generated in the town.
In 2012, the town abandoned its traditional curbside recycling program in favor of transporting the tons of trash collected to Covanta, a waste-to-energy incineration facility in Chester, Pa. The town’s public works department collects trash from residential and commercial sources each day and transports it to the solid waste facility at 65th Street, where it is loaded onto tractor-trailers and sent to Covanta near Philadelphia.
At the Covanta facility, the town’s trash is incinerated, and the steam produced during the process is used to turn turbines that produce renewable energy. The byproduct of the waste-to-energy method at Covanta is strictly regulated by federal and state agencies and scrubbers are used to eliminate or at least reduce the impact of the emissions on the communities surrounding the plant.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council had before them a renewal of the contract with Covanta, which is currently set to expire on Dec. 31. The negotiated renewal calls for a two-year contract with Covanta, with a series of three one-year extensions. City Manager Doug Miller explained the contract renewal was carefully renegotiated and Covanta returned its signed copy late last week. Miller said it was now up to the Mayor and Council to decide to renew the contract and authorize him to sign the renewal.
Back in 2012, the town entered a contract with Covanta to accept our municipal solid waste at the waste-to energy facility. Initially, it was two contracts, one with Covanta, and one with a hauler, but the contracts were later combined. The contract up for renewal on Monday was a single-source contract for the hauling and waste disposal.
“In that contract, there was a series of extensions and we took advantage of all of those extensions,” Miller said. “The last extension sunsets at the end of this year. Given that we have had a good working relationship with Covanta and the waste-to-energy method of getting rid of our municipal solid waste is unique to our nature as a resort town, the staff recommends to the council that we seek future extensions. We put a team together from different disciplines and started negotiating a contract. What you have before you is a two-year extension with three one-year options.”
Before the contract renewal was put before a vote, however, the council heard from a number of private citizens about the waste-to-energy method as opposed to traditional recycling. Local resident Mary Harrison said the town should explore other alternatives to the waste-to-energy contract with Covanta.
“I respectfully request this contract is not awarded to a single source,” she said. “I think we need to look at alternative ways to dispose of the town’s waste. Without benchmarking, how do we know we’re getting the best bang for our buck.”
Another local resident said visitors are often stunned to learn the town does not do traditional recycling.
“It’s embarrassing being a resident here and people come and visit and can’t believe we don’t recycle,” she said. “Burning recyclables is certainly not a very environmentally friendly thing to do. We have a landfill here in Worcester County that is a cheaper alternative to what we’re doing. We’re hearing the boycott word because we’re sending our trash to be burned in another neighborhood.”
The resident was referring to recent backlash from some sources outside the resort area calling for a boycott of Ocean City because the town does not recycle, but rather sends its trash to be incinerated in a facility in a decidedly less affluent community near Philadelphia.
“It’s time for the town to step forward and do the right thing,” she said. “We’re burning plastic and metals and the scrubbers can only do so much. It’s not the direction we need to go. I’d like to see Ocean City go back and reconsider recycling. People are astounded all of the trash generated in this town is not recycled.”
Local resident Scott Chismar said town officials were being unfairly labeled for sending the resort’s trash to be incinerated in another community, but agreed alternatives could be explored going forward.
“Some people have gone a little bit crazy and each one of you has been accused of environmental racism and the boycott word has been tossed around and I find that to be upsetting,” he said. “A lot of things can happen in 24 months. There are some reasonable folks and there could be a meeting of the minds to come up with some alternatives. Some folks are absolutely convinced it could be done cheaper than what we’re doing. There are alternatives out there and I hope you take the 24 months to listen to reasonable people and find a way to make everybody happy.”
Local resident Josh Chamberlain, who is co-founder of the progressive composting program to dispose of the waste generated by many resort restaurants in an environmentally-friendly way, agreed alternatives to the waste-to-energy method should be explored. Chamberlain asked if the contract renewal would curtail his composting efforts in any way. Miller assured him the Covanta contract would not stand in the way of any of his composting efforts or any other recycling alternatives.
“Covanta is extremely supportive of any efforts to compost and there are no contractual issues there,” he said. “If we set up drop-off centers somewhere, they wouldn’t have a problem with that either.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said he was part of the town’s original curbside recycling and sorting program years ago and continues to recycle on his own, but said the Covanta solution continues to make sense.
“I was part of that recycling program,” he said. “When the town disbanded traditional recycling, it was because the market for recyclables had plummeted to the point it wasn’t even close to cost-neutral. At that point, I had the same opinion as a number of people in this room. Why are we not doing this?”
Paddack also addressed the assertion the Covanta contract was generating bad publicity for the town.
“A comment was made this is bad publicity for the Town of Ocean City,” he said. “According to whom and what political narrative? We’ve gotten dozens of emails from non-residents saying the Town of Ocean City is wrong for doing waste-to-energy. That’s their opinion, but we have eight million people that go through this town every year and think it’s very disingenuous when they start playing the race card. The Town of Ocean City contributes just 3% of the trash that goes to Covanta and we’re the racists? How many other communities are sending their trash to Covanta?”
Paddack questioned the sources of the proposed boycott.
“When we hear the word boycott, I don’t know how many of those that claim they’re going to boycott Ocean City have ever been here or even planned to come here,” he said. “I strongly urge everyone to come here and enjoy the scenery and the amenities and the restaurants, but when you come here, you have to be responsible just like you are in your home communities. Until I hear other alternatives, right now this is what’s on the table.”
Councilman John Gehrig said a return to traditional recycling or other alternatives could be explored going forward, but at the moment, the contract with Covanta was to soon expire and action was needed to renew it.
“Not everybody is on the same side of this issue,” he said. “I get it. The reality right now is this expires at the end of the year and we have to do something. Having a new plan requires a whole lot of details that, quite frankly, couldn’t be executed by Dec. 31. Money is part of it, but, obviously, the environment is the biggest part of it.”
Gehrig said the council was open to hearing about alternatives, but time was of the essence to renew the contract.
“The reality is we have some smart people that come before us with good ideas to help the community,” he said. “We’re happy to hear all of those ideas. Today, we have a contract that expires in four months and we have a decision we need to make today for the Town of Ocean City. Two years goes by fast, and if somebody has better ideas, bring them forward because we are open to them.”
The council voted 7-0 to authorize Miller to renew the contract with Covanta for two years with three one-year extensions that could be executed.