More from MPR
Respond to this story
Fergus Falls, Minn. — It's always busy at the Fergus Falls incinerator. The plant burns garbage 24 hours a day. Trash from seven counties is dropped here. If trucks aren't dumping garbage, front-end loaders are pushing waste into the pits to be burned.
The incinerator also generates steam, which is sold to heat the state's Regional Treatment Center, a large facility in town. Each year the state pays the city more than $800,000 to heat the building. But the old treatment center building is being shut down, and the facility's operations are moving to a newer, smaller building, that won't need steam heat.
City Administrator Mark Sievert says the incinerator can't make enough money to stay open by just burning trash.
"The charge to dispose of the garbage at the facility, which is our tipping fee, would have to be so high to cover our costs that we're not competitive with a landfill," says Sievert.
Sievert says the city looked for a new customer for the steam heat. One possibility was the local community college.
"The cost of getting (the steam) there, all that piping, was about $3 million," says Sievert. "Based upon the amount of steam we calculated they would use, we wouldn't recoup our capitol costs for 50 years, let alone make anything selling them the steam. So when you run all those numbers it just doesn't come close to making it."
Workers know the incinerator will close and some of the 14 employees must find new jobs. Others will remain with the city. The problem is, no one is sure when the incinerator will close.
Mark Larson, Fergus Falls' solid waste manager, says the state hopes to move to the new Regional Treatment Center in March, but that plan could change. Until the move is completed, the incinerator's steam is needed. Larson says it's difficult to make long term plans.
"There is a process that, by permit, we have to go through, to close a facility like this down," says Larson. "The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency doesn't let you just shut the door and walk away. That will take some time."
There are other complications. State law says counties are responsible for getting rid of garbage. When the Fergus Falls plant closes, seven counties will have to find a new place for their garbage to go. Otter Tail County is one of them.
Mike Hanan, director of Otter Tail County's waste department, says the counties would like to work together to reduce costs but so far, there are no agreements to do so.
Hanan says not all of his county's garbage is burned in Fergus Falls -- some is shipped to an incinerator in Perham, Minnesota. But since that facility is already taking the maximum amount of garbage allowed by law, it isn't a solution.
"Perham is permitted for a certain number of tons per day, 116, and there are several other entities that deliver waste to there and take away some of the capacity of the facility," says Larson. "For instance, Wadena County, Todd County and Stearns County also have contracts to deliver (to that incinerator), and we can't just push them out and say, 'Now that we don't have something to do with our waste, you have to go find somewhere else to go.'"
Hanan says the county has talked about building a new landfill, but that idea is unpopular. For one thing, rsidents worry a landfill would harm area lakes. Hanan says it could take years before a permit could be issued.
Hanan says when the Fergus Falls incinerator shuts down, the trash will be trucked to a landfill, either in Elk River, Minnesota or Gwinner, North Dakota. But trucking the garbage will cost money. City Administrator Mark Sievert says solid waste disposal costs are going to get expensive in Fergus Falls and west central Minnesota.
In addition, the city is paying off a $1.7 million debt on improvements at the incinerator. The money was required to bring the plant into compliance with federal and state pollution standards. Sievert says local taxes could go up 10 percent to retire that debt.