Controversial garbage-fed power plant still on track

Officials at Costa Rica’s agency in charge of environmental regulation confirmed that they are evaluating a proposed energy plant that will burn garbage to produce energy near Barranca, Puntarenas.

The project has caused controversy in the past two months with some residents citing the environmental and health risks that they say such a plant would create.

Nonetheless, the proposal has passed through numerous government bodies and is now back in the hands of the Secretaría Técnica Nacional Ambiental for a final study.

“The project is in evaluation,” said Marita Alvarado Velas, the geologist in charge of studying the plant in the agency’s Departamento de Evaluacion Ambietal.

Ms. Alvarado said that the project cannot move forward until her agency has studied and approved the project. She could not estimate how long the study would take. A spokesperson for the company said that the approval process will likely take another six months and construction will take another six months to a year.

While many have concerns about the consequences of burning garbage on the environment and health, others believe that such plants, otherwise known as incinerators, can solve growing landfill problems without these other consequences if the process is well controlled and regulated.

Company spokesperson Edwin Dobner takes issue with the term incinerator, a term that he said stirs up negative connotations that do not reflect the reality of what the power plant will do.

“This project is not an ‘incinerator’ per se, and it would be incorrect to characterize it as such because for the lay person that implies contamination, in the form of increased greenhouse gas production,” said Dobner in an email. “In fact, modern gasification technologies for municipal solid waste represent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions when compared to a standard landfill.”

Dobner added that decomposing garbage releases far more greenhouse gases over time than burning it in a controlled process. He said that the process will relieve pressure on garbage dumps while converting trash into energy and creating jobs.

However, an ecologist and a resident of the nearby town of Miramar, Julio Müller, disputes some of these claims in a blog about the issue. He said in an email that Costa Rica does not have the
infrastructure to safely handle the leftover ash that the plant would produce.

The proposed plant, Puntarenas Waste Energy, will be owned and operated by Environmental Power E.P.C.R. S.A., otherwise known as EnPower.

Dobner said that the company began searching for a site in 2005. The company had almost gained approval for a site in 2010 on land that it did not own but had negotiated a deal to use. That land was repossessed from the owner by the bank and sold to someone else.

EnPower has been getting approval on its new site, which is in the same community as the previous one, since last October.

However, the project has been gaining more attention since August. That month, Müller and a group of bloggers under the name Grupo Miramar al Grano started a blog, “Environmental Power en Costa Rica – Incinderadora Barranca calienta,” that sharply condemns the project and the use of gasification to generate energy overall. Müller also wrote a blog condemning a gold mining project in Costa Rica.

Müller said in an email that Costa Rica lacks the necessary landfills to dispose of hazardous materials in the ashes that result from burning garbage. He added that very little energy comes out of these incinerators overall.

“Despite what industry and government and local media would like people to believe, incineration is not a green solution to waste problems, it will cause even more problems, nobody in this country is able and willing to solve,” said Müller in the email.

On Sept. 12, writers of the blog called on numerous levels of government, as low as the municipality of Puntarenas and as high as President Laura Chinchilla, to put an immediate stop to the incinerator. They also demanded that all levels of government reject incinerators in the future and adopt recycling programs.

A Sept. 20 report in La Voz Liberacionista put out by the political party said that the company had lost its land-use permit in Puntarenas and was unlikely to regain it. Dobner said he has documents proving that EnPower does in fact have all of its necessary permits and they are all active, including the land-use permit from Puntarenas.

After the environmental regulation agency completes its viability study, Dobner said that there are three or more key certifications it must get before construction can begin. Dobner said that he expects the project to be finished in one and a half years at the most.

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