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1987: Burning mad
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
Just before Christmas in 1987, Mercer County officials and Westinghouse executives shook hands on a deal for construction of a $120 million trash incinerator at Duck Island, Hamilton Township.

    Hailed as the solution to the trash disposal problem, the plan envisioned Mercer leading the effort to develop clean and safe incineration for the throw-away society that Greater Trenton and the rest of America had become.

    Mercer taxpayers today are more than $100 million in debt because of the vision of 1987. But there's no incinerator getting rid of trash and also making money generating electricity, as the promoters promised.

    Why it never happened and why nothing cost so much money is another story of government missteps and miscalculation with the usual set of beneficiaries: Lawyers and engineers with political connections; bankers and investors with profit guarantees; and bureaucrats and judges with enough new rules to keep an army of scientific and other consultants on the public payroll.

    To understand how it happened, go back to the 1970s, when New Jersey government decided that each of the 21 counties would have to come up with a plan for getting rid of its trash.

    With dumps all over Jersey and the rest of the Northeast filling fast and environmental regulation making it difficult to dig new "sanitary landfills,'' as their proponents termed them, officials in several Jersey counties decided trash
burning was the way to go.

    Through most of the 70s and 80s, Mercer politicians argued over where to put an incinerator, talking about sites in the city, separate Trenton and Hamilton parcels of Duck Island, the Homosote plant in Ewing and the farm country of Washington Township.

    In 1986, the Mercer County Improvement Authority, Mercer Executive Bill Mathesius and three county freeholders, including an ambitious young pol named Bob Prunetti, got behind Mayor Jack Rafferty's plan for an incinerator on a Hamilton portion of Duck Island.

    But a site in Trenton was also under consideration by the MCIA, and Mathesius said if the city wanted the $5 million in "host'' fees that would come with the smokestacks, he was willing to support an urban incinerator.

    The MCIA envisioned a plant off North Clinton Avenue on a former industrial tract called the Crane site. If built, the shadow of its stacks would have played over the North Ward's working-class minority neighborhoods.

    In public hearings, Trentonians made it clear that they didn't want the plant located in the heart of the city. Trenton's top black leader, former Jersey Assembly Speaker Rev. S. Howard Woodson, remarked that no issue ever before had unified all 32 of Trenton's black ministers.

    As Mathesius and the freeholders spoke more of voting for the Rafferty plan, Trenton Mayor Art Holland, who had opposed the Crane site incinerator, started getting worried about losing the big bucks for letting in a burner.

    Holland said he might support the Crane burner after all and also came up with an alternate site on Duck Island, this one just over the Hamilton line in the city on a 19-acre property that was 12 acres of lagoon.

    On July 9, 1986, the logjam was broken by freeholders Doug Palmer and Paul Sollami, two Democrats who were under pressure from their party to keep supporting Holland and his bid to somehow bring the project to the city side of Duck Island.

    Known nationwide today as the mayor of Trenton, Palmer and Sollami joined two freeholders with names that also are still familiar, Mercer Executive Prunetti and Assemblyman Paul Kramer, in forming the majority needed to advance Rafferty's Duck Island burner.

    This is when the real spending began. But any cynic who suggests today that the $100 million was wasted will get an argument from all the officials involved.

    Only last week, for instance, such diverse sources as MCIA Director Jim Lambert and Prunetti's opponent in the current executive race, Freeholder Jim McManimon, outlined where the money went and why it was spent.

    First, they said, the county had to buy or take options on the soggy land it wanted to build upon. It had to find industrial firms willing to take on the project and negotiate affordable terms with them.

    County government had to bring in a host of lawyers and aides to fill out permit applications and appear before the regulatory boards and legislative committees with the power to make or break a burner project.

    McManimon's older brother, MCIA lawyer Edward McManimon, led a team of financial and banking consultants brought in to help figure out ways to finance the construction and help the project pay for itself.

    Another team of consultants was needed to help the MCIA sell investors on buying bonds loaning the county money for the project. It cost money, meanwhile, to buy bond default insurance, guaranteeing the investors a return on their dollars.

    Then there were all the scientific, environmental and technology consultants who had to be put to work. To win approval from Jersey environmental agencies, for instance, Mercer needed to hire experts who could convince regulators the burner wouldn't pollute the air, nearby river or land below.

    This was particularly expensive, Lambert remarked, because Mercer was planning for a state-of-the-art burner and the state of the art still hadn't been developed. While other planning went on, he noted, the scientists were working on new, high-tech "scrubbers'' for keeping particles of mercury and other harmful dust from spewing out of the smokestacks.

    Less than three years into the work, a new governor named Jim Florio was talking about calling a halt to all the incinerator projects that got started in Jersey as a result of the old Jersey Solid Waste Law.

    In an April 1990 speech, Florio urged counties to recycle more and said he wouldn't be inclined to shift to incineration until at least 60 percent of what was in Jersey's trash ended up in recycling systems.

    Mercer's recycling program, indeed, is the one legacy of its now dormant incinerator idea. Some of the millions did go, for instance, to fund the color-coded recycling buckets given to nearly all Mercer residents, as well as the aluminum and glass sorting and transfer station in Ewing.

    After Florio's pronouncements, it was all downhill for the Mercer burner. Jersey's Florio-era Department of Environmental Protection wouldn't approve the air and water quality reports, agreeing with ecology advocates that too much arsenic, mercury and other harmful metals would make it through the stacks to the air and water.

    Still, Mercer pressed on. When the deal with Westinghouse fell through, officials cut one with another incinerator company, Ogden-Martin Inc., for $154 million in July 1991.

    By then, as Lambert said the other day, Mercer was running out of room in dumps and was years away from an incinerator it initially figured to have up and running that year. And the worst was yet to come.

    A federal court ruling saying trash haulers had the right to cross state lines in search of the cheapest dumping rates wreaked havoc with Mercer's financial projections for an incinerator, Lambert said.

    The ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998, also led to costly litigation with Atlantic County, which had agreed to supply trash to Mercer in return for some of the electricity revenue, and some bondholders fearful of losing their investments.

    It was lucky that several new landfills in Pennsylvania opened in the early 1990s, Lambert said the other day, because that meant Mercer had a place to keep taking its trash. With new competitors nearby in Pennsy, Buck County's GROWS landfill had to keep dumping fees low, which helped Mercer get a good deal.

    With the need for a burner and its economic and environmental viability under question in 1996, the stage was set in one last Mercer incinerator vote. With three freeholders in favor of pressing forward and three others against, McManimon cast the vote that appeared to smother the idea.

    These days, Jim McManimon is running for executive proudly proclaiming that he killed the incinerator project, which in 1996 had a projected cost of $260 million, or $140 million more than the original price.

    Not long after McManimon's vote, incinerator advocate Prunetti even dropped the idea, saying it was no longer viable financially or politically.

    But Lambert said the debate is bound to continue into the next millennium. The landfills opened in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s are nearing capacity, Lambert noted, and New York already is diverting trash trucks away from its about-to-close Fresh Kills dump.

    Many of the New York trucks can be seen these days cutting through Trenton on the way to Bucks' GROWS landfill, Lambert said. In 2008, when Mercer's contract with GROWS runs out, the Pennsy megadump will be at or near capacity.

    Meaning Mercer will be back to square one, much to the delight of a new generation of lawyers, bankers, investors, financiers, scientists, industrialists and consultants but not taxpayers.