Wheelabrator stumps for support

Published 9:32 pm Thursday, January 14, 2016

A representative of Wheelabrator spent Wednesday morning stumping to Portsmouth business owners the company hopes will support its bid to continue as the chosen trash disposal method in the region.

Joel Rubin of Rubin Communications, which represents Wheelabrator, talked to about 18 people in the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce Portsmouth Division monthly membership meeting at the TowneBank building on High Street in Portsmouth.

Rubin sold Wheelabrator as the trash disposal option that’s best for the region and the U.S. Navy. Steam generated by burning much of the region’s trash at the waste-to-energy plant is provided to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, powering its 94-building facility.

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The remainder of the steam is sold onto the grid and produces enough energy to power “thousands and thousands of homes around the region,” Rubin told the business owners.

The eight member localities of the Southeastern Public Service Authority — Suffolk, Franklin, Southampton County, Isle of Wight County, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach — currently are considering whether to remain together and how to dispose of their trash past January 2018, when their contracts with SPSA expire.

If they do stay together, they have four disposal options to consider. One is the status quo, which includes Wheelabrator and the regional landfill located in Suffolk.

We believe that waste-to-energy is the best way to go,” Rubin said in a phone call Thursday. “It works for this region; it works for the Navy; it works for Portsmouth; it works environmentally. The challenge is it’s more expensive.”

Rubin said the ash left after burning the trash is about 20 percent of its initial volume. It is used for cover at the Suffolk landfill.

The other options include continuing to fill the landfill in Suffolk, trucking trash to a landfill in Brunswick County, or using a company called Hampton Roads Integrated Bioenergy Complex, which would produce pellets at a Chesapeake facility and sell them to coal-fired power plants.

Doug Fuller of HRIBC said in a phone call Thursday that the energy pellets are the newest technology and will help coal plants reduce their carbon emissions.

The company will take the waste stream, remove recyclables and condense most of the remainder into pellet form, Fuller said.

“That will be ground and create a pellet that is used as a substitute or used to blend with coal at coal-fired facilities to help them reduce their mandated 30-percent carbon emissions,” Fuller said.

Rubin told the business owners on Wednesday that he wasn’t sure who the customer would be for the pellets, since coal-fired plants are shutting down.

But Fuller said it will be a long time before they are completely out of existence.

“It will take about 40 or 50 years for them to go out of existence because of the infrastructure it will cost to replace it,” Fuller said. “I don’t see coal-fired facilities going away for many, many, many years.”

Rubin told the business owners in Wednesday’s meeting that Wheelabrator’s partnership with the Navy gets the Navy 40 percent of its renewable energy goal for the entire mid-Atlantic region.

Wheelabrator has a $68 million economic impact annually in the region, Rubin added. It employs 145 people and is the largest water user in Portsmouth. It also pays about $1 million in local taxes for the property, which prior to 2010 was on the public roll, because it was previously owned by SPSA.

“You’re not going to replace a corporate citizen like Wheelabrator overnight, and maybe never,” he said. “It’s not just tax revenue. It’s not just jobs. We’re a good corporate citizen.”

Rubin asked the business owners to get involved in letting their elected officials know they want to keep Wheelabrator around. He encouraged them to call the officials and attend the next SPSA board meeting to speak during the public comment period.

There’s one thing Fuller and Rubin agree on: landfilling all of the region’s waste isn’t the sustainable answer for the environment.

“Landfills are filling up, and they’re hard to permit,” Fuller said. “You want to try to perpetuate the life of a landfill as much as you can by diverting debris from the landfill.”