The Washington and Ramsey county boards voted Tuesday to buy a regional garbage-processing plant in Newport, putting the future of solid waste disposal in the public’s hands.
The $24.4 million purchase means the counties will have stronger control over waste-disposal costs and emerging technologies that will reduce pollution, commissioners said.
“It would be a good idea to get out of the garbage-burning business,” said Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik. “I do think the purchase of the Newport plant will put us in the driver’s seat to do just that. It will give us the means to explore emerging technology.”
Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt agreed.
“By having public control of this, we can actually take advantage of some of that technology,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s the same-old, same-old — we continue to subsidize.”
The contentious decision to buy the private plant, owned and operated by Resource Recovery Technologies, came after months of public debate over expenses, pollution and subsidies to trash haulers.
The plant, under contract with the counties since 1982, grinds garbage before it’s shipped to Red Wing and Mankato and burned for energy.
Both counties have paid a subsidy to haulers to cover the difference in the higher cost of hauling to the Newport plant vs. disposal at out-of-state landfills that might not meet environmental standards.
Minnesota law requires counties to provide for processing rather than use open dumps that could threaten groundwater.
On Tuesday, the county boards, in separate actions in Stillwater and St. Paul, approved the joint powers agreement to buy the plant and share its costs. Ramsey County will pay $17.8 million, while the less-populated Washington will pay $6.6 million.
The counties’ contract with Resource Recovery expires at the end of this year, and the company has said it wanted to sell the plant.
Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, whose district includes Newport, said that if the counties didn’t buy the plant, 80 jobs were at risk, $354,000 in property tax revenue could be lost and more garbage could be trucked to landfills.
Neither county has a landfill operation and state law prohibits them from opening a new one. The counties said they intend to emphasize waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting to lessen the volume of garbage that is burned.
In Washington County, the board voted 5-0 in favor of the purchase. Money will come from a solid waste reserve fund and “no tax levy for this,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel. In Ramsey County, the vote was 6-1, with Commissioner Janice Rettman the lone dissenter.
Rettman said she preferred that the operation be in private hands. With bonds issued to purchase the plant, she said, county taxpayers will be on the hook for 25 years.
“To me, the best way to recycle and reuse is to have private businesses being the entrepreneurs and doing the stewardship,” she said.
Opponents have taken umbrage with the current “grind and burn” disposal method, saying it generates extensive harmful air pollution.
Last week, the Newport City Council voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution supporting the counties’ purchase of the plant. Public ownership “would likely improve oversight of occasional management issues such as unpleasant odors and traffic concerns,” the resolution said.