Why Is Waste-to-Energy So Controversial?
In the late 1980s, waste-to-energy projects became the target of intense public debate at the local, state, and national levels. A technology that had been seen by most technology experts to be a "safe" and "reliable" means of managing municipal waste was increasingly viewed by the public to hold unacceptable risks and uncertainties. Local groups were formed to challenge almost every WTE project in the planning phase. National environmental organizations provided support for local organizations and came out strongly against further adoption of WTE. Some environmental groups and members of the U.S. Congress even argued for a national moratorium on the construction of any new WTE facilities.
As a result, the WTE industry was placed increasingly on the defensive in arguing for specific projects and WTE in general. In addition, many local decision makers became very risk-averse toward WTE, as decisions about WTE projects were delayed or communities adopted more popular options, such as recycling and composting programs. Public confidence in WTE was eroded, and many WTE projects in the planning stages were abandoned.
Many issues have been at the heart of the debate about WTE. For example, are the environmental consequences of WTE severe, and how do those consequences compare to damages resulting from other approaches to waste management and other commonly accepted technologies? Will future legislation and regulations at the national and state levels alter the attractiveness of WTE? Should communities delay any decisions about WTE until pending environmental and financial rules are finalized? Will a facility built today be robust to future changes in rules regarding environmental emissions? Will alternative technologies--e.g., landfilling and recycling--be less costly during the life of the WTE facility? What percentage of the waste stream