A New Way to Look at Environmental Justice

For years, community activists, religious leaders and politicians have fought the construction of land fills in low income neighborhoods. To them, their presence has been a bane to the community that scares away businesses, lowers property values and pollutes the local environment. The reasons behind their protests are honorable and well founded. However, our country’s need to develop affordable, clean, alternative energy resources and the move toward “green” initiatives have begun to change the way we view problems and use resources. Many view the construction of landfills in low income areas as an environmental justice issue based on discrimination and the opportunity to acquire land at depressed prices. I would like to introduce a different and positive perspective that may change our perspective on landfills and the potential opportunities they hold for energy production and green jobs.

One community’s trash is another community’s treasure?

Since the last Presidential election, clean, renewable energy, especially solar and wind, have been the hot topic of debate and focus in media and political circles. Some advocates have proposed it as a way to resolve national security issues by decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. While others view it as a provider of new jobs and a way to protect the environment from green house gases and toxic pollution. However, the media and political coverage have been heavily tilted toward solar and wind industries as the primary green energy solution. Solar and Wind facilities are definitely part of the solution to our country’s energy needs but with their cost and technical requirements, they may as well be a whole world away from the people who live in the low income areas near landfills in major cities. These people have a different reality: truckloads of trash arriving every hour and a constant wind borne stench. The best opportunity for these communities to benefit in the green economy is to convert the Landfill gas to energy.

Landfill Gas, A Hidden Treasure?

The Downside

Landfills naturally produce a gas (Landfill Gas) mixture that contains 50-60% methane, the primary ingredient of natural gas, as a byproduct of decaying trash matter. Many landfills burn off methane as part of their emissions compliance measures because is it highly explosive and 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Another downside of Landfill gas is in its raw form, it contains other toxic pollutants such as Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) which have to be mitigated through additional pollution control measures. Staunch alternative energy advocates have used Landfill gas’ toxic byproducts to debunk its use as an energy source. But there has been significant investment in pollution control technologies that can neutralize these toxic byproducts and lead to breakthroughs in Landfill gas refining.

The Upside

It has been proven that Landfill gas can be refined to level where it can used generate a significant amount of electricity for export to the local electrical grid; fuel a vehicle fleet and cut greenhouse gas emissions. If community leaders and Landfill operators can work together, landfills can become an economic engine for growth: bringing jobs and investment into the local community.

Don’t believe me? Consider the facts:

Through its Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), the EPA has identified hundreds of landfills across the country as candidates for energy production. Some of these landfills have been developed into operational Landfill gas facilities which are producing electricity for homes in the surrounding community. Consider this example: One megawatt (1MW) of electricity is enough to power about 1000 homes for an hour on average. The Puente Landfill in Whittier, CA has the capacity to generate 50MW of electricity on its main turbine and another 8 MW from its 2 other engines. This is enough generation capacity for 58,000 homes! The amount of Landfill gas captured on daily basis can vary depending on certain conditions but engineers can calculate the amounts of gas that a landfill will produce over time based certain calculations.

How can it be done?

Private-Public Partnerships (PPP) are an investment vehicle where private investors and government authorities fund infrastructure projects and share the revenues. The government revenues from selling energy to the utilities could be invested into community infrastructure redevelopment projects (rebuilding buildings, bridges, roads and water/sewer systems). Infrastructure projects are a proven way to create jobs and start an economic multiplier effect in a community.

Types of  Green Jobs Created

Here is a short list of jobs that could be created through a project of this type not all of them require a college degree but they do require training. Hundreds (possibly thousands) of jobs could be created once the infrastructure projects are initiated.

A Call to Consideration

The considerations that community leaders and Landfill operators should make when looking at these types of projects are:

  • How they can work together to harness these energy resources to bring investment into their communities while maintaining environmental compliance.
  • Building equitable Public-Private Partnerships which create maximum benefits for all
  • Finding the right infrastructure investments which will create jobs, attract new businesses and improve quality of life in the local community.

A Call To Action

Here is the final consideration that community leaders The Global Waste to Energy Industry is expected to reach almost $29 billion in revenue by 2015. Isn’t it time for everyone benefit from the green economy? You decide.

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