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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane officials, seeing change in near future, study incinerator takeover

City leaders want to know if government could do a better job running Spokane’s energy-producing trash incinerator.

With potentially major changes coming over the next few years in how and where the region’s garbage is disposed, Spokane City Council members this week authorized a study of whether it would be more effective to operate the Waste-to-Energy Plant with city workers rather than extend the contract with Wheelabrator Technologies Inc.

“There’s some thought that the city could do it for less and have more flexibility to deal with whatever changes could be coming,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who chairs the city’s Public Works Committee.

The city pays Wheelabrator about $18 million to $21 million a year to operate the trash incinerator, which is where most garbage collected across Spokane County is taken. The sale of energy produced by burning the trash generates about $6 million a year.

The current contract with Wheelabrator, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., expires this fall, though there’s an option to extend it for a year.

Initial estimates by Ken Gimpel, business director for the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, indicate the city could operate the plant with its own workforce for less than what it’s paying Wheelabrator.

“We’ll be looking at it financially, but also whether the city would be able to manage it technologically,” said Gimpel, a former manager with Waste Management.

Gimpel estimates the formal study will take about a month.

Wheelabrator was hired more than two decades ago to design, build and operate the incinerator for the city. The company is paid a negotiated price per ton of garbage dumped and burned at the plant.

But with Spokane County taking over the region’s garbage system, there’s no long-term guarantee that the incinerator will get all the trash.

County commissioners and others have openly questioned whether it would be cheaper to ship the region’s garbage to a massive landfill in Central Washington. The county, which takes control of the garbage system in November, has agreed to keep sending trash to the city’s incinerator for at least three years but could choose a cheaper option after that.

The city says that’s why it needs greater flexibility in the incinerator’s operations.

“I think we want to keep it competitive and that’s what we’re taking a look at,” Waldref said. “We want to be able to manage for change in the future.”