Extinguish this flame soon

Published 9:50 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Most folks would never know it, because it happens far out of view, but the Southeastern Public Service Authority leaves a light on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Think of it as a security light. If it weren’t lit, the regional landfill where it burns would be at risk of releasing dangerous levels of methane into the atmosphere or possibly even rupturing from the built-up pressure of decomposition gases looking for a way to escape.

The flame that burns off the landfill’s methane gas requires no external power, but its environmental impact is significant, especially in indirect terms. It is a relatively simple task to convert landfill gas into electricity or steam. Allowing the gas to burn is wasteful and — in these days of environmental hypersensitivity — gratuitously ignores an opportunity to reduce the landfill’s carbon footprint.

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For much of the life of the landfill, burning the methane gas has been the best solution for dealing with it. That situation changed, however, when Ciba Corp. announced a proposed plan to capture all of the methane from the landfill and convert it to steam for its boilers and electricity that could power the company’s equipment and much of the surrounding community.

What’s in it for SPSA is between $30 million and $35 million in payments for the gas, not to mention reducing the landfill’s impact on the environment. What’s in it for Ciba is cheap, reliable energy. What’s in it for Ciba’s partners are regular payments from the company to pay for their help in extracting and converting the gas. It’s a proposal with a small degree of risk for the regional waste authority, but one with the potential for a big payoff for all of the involved parties.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that SPSA — which faces hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, a long history of financial mismanagement and a pattern of poor decision-making — has dragged its feet on a response to Ciba’s proposal.

With at least three companies hoping to get a hand on SPSA’s assets and a contractual obligation from its municipal members, it’s understandable if the authority felt it had too many irons in the fire to give Ciba a quick answer about the proposal when it was presented nearly a year ago. There has been ample opportunity since then, however, to evaluate the potential impact of a methane-withdrawal agreement on those other offers.

For SPSA to continue to ignore the opportunity for a new, guaranteed and desperately needed source of revenue in the face of its continuing financial problems would be irresponsible in the extreme.

It’s time for board members to agree to the methane cogeneration proposal put forward by Ciba and its partners and to finally extinguish the lonely flame that continues to burn at the landfill — at such a high cost to taxpayers and to the environment.