Companies, officials debate methane fuel plan

Methane gas generated from rotting trash in a closed cell at the Augusta landfill is collected and processed for sale.

State Sen. J.B. Powell defends the last piece of legislation he had a hand in -- an amendment that would have prohibited governments from making waste haulers run their trash trucks on clean-burning methane gas -- as an effort to protect the "little guy" and draw the public's attention to a problematic proposal.

"It was communism," he said Friday. "All over Richmond County, they understood what I was saying."

Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson and Augusta Administrator Fred Russell proposed in March that the fuel requirement be included in the city's new five-year contract with its waste haulers.

At the Capitol, lobbyists for Georgia's waste haulers, large and small, told him it would increase their operating costs and ultimately drive up prices for consumers, Powell said.

But not everyone around Augusta, including some in the business of hauling the city's trash, agreed with Powell. Some see the plan, part of an effort to convert a landfill byproduct into cleaner-burning fuel, as a no-brainer, particularly with the Augusta area on the verge of gaining nonattainment air quality status from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cities around the United States have converted fleet vehicles to run on CNG as a way to reduce carbon emissions, found in vehicle exhaust. Carbon emissions also are the raw materials for ozone, the main ingredient in smog. Augusta is barely in compliance with the current EPA standard of 75 parts per billion of ground-level ozone, and the EPA might lower the standard to 70 this summer.

Inland Services, one of three companies now hauling Augusta-Richmond County trash, ran mandatory CNG-powered routes in California for several years, according to David Vance, Inland's director of fleet maintenance in Augusta.

"You're looking at about $8,000 to convert a truck," Vance said.

If Augusta supplies its waste haulers with CNG, however, the plan could lower costs to consumers because up to 35 percent of a waste-hauler's costs are fuel, he said.

Augusta Disposal hasn't ruled out switching to CNG, but administrator Monique Woods said she was unfamiliar with what the city was proposing.

"We don't have an opinion one way or the other; it's really too soon," Woods said.

A requirement that all trucks be "100 percent" CNG-powered might pose challenges, Woods said.

"Some of the subcontractors, I don't know if they have the monetary ability to convert."

Inland, Augusta Disposal and Advanced Disposal are encouraged to subcontract with one or more small, mostly minority-owned local trash pickup companies, Vance said.

One of them, Coleman Sanitation, isn't sure what effect a conversion to CNG would have.

Coleman, Augusta Disposal's only subcontractor, runs a half-dozen trash trucks and employs up to 20 people, depending on the workload, according to owner Melvin Coleman.

Consolidation nearly drove the county's small waste haulers out of business a decade ago, but the subcontractor system in place now has been working, Coleman said.

Coleman said he hadn't heard anything about the city's proposal or what it might require of his operation.

"It's definitely going to make a difference, but until somebody comes up and explains how expensive this is going to be, it's going to be hard to determine that," he said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham retains hope for the plan and called attention to a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. It would double existing federal tax credits for the purchase of natural-gas-powered fleet vehicles for 10 years. Its goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

Former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek, credited with proposing the conversion plan at the landfill, scoffed at skeptics.

"Us ignoring this resource is the equivalent of Saudi Arabia not pumping oil," said Cheek, who now lives in Aiken County.

Cheek's brother Robert, however, wasn't so sure.

"I don't think the county should force anybody to use a certain type of fuel," said Robert Cheek, who is seeking the District 8 commission seat now held by Jimmy Smith.

Powell's amendment failed in the House, and a day later he filed to run for commissioner of agriculture rather than seek re-election in his District 23 Senate seat. But he had already helped sideline the city's plan.

After he wrote a letter to the commission demanding that it not require waste haulers to use CNG, it voted 7-2 to send the proposal back to a committee, which later voted to delete it from its agenda.

Commissioner Joe Bowles was one of the two who voted to keep it.

"We have 200,000 citizens that are being provided a service," he said. "Instead of looking out for their interests, we're looking out for small haulers."

What's the issue?

With about 1,200 tons of trash going to the landfill daily, Augusta has much more naturally occurring landfill methane than it can sell to its only authorized customer, a nearby kaolin mine, Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson has said.

The landfill can either burn it off in a flare, as it does now, or convert it to compressed natural gas for trash trucks, city fleets and customers, Johnson said.

State Sen. J.B. Powell said requiring haulers to convert their trucks to CNG, as City Administrator Fred Russell and Johnson proposed, would be too expensive for small haulers. His amendment to prohibit it failed in the House, but an Augusta Commission committee has since voted to take the proposal off the commission agenda.

Developing a conversion facility would cost the city $11 million, but it could pay for itself in less than a decade as additional consumers lined up for the fuel, proponents say.

More