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The future of the Snoqualmie Weyerhaeuser mill site in question

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SNOQUALMIE - Everybody was talking trash at the Feb. 28 Snoqualmie City Council meeting.

A presentation by Waste Recovery Seattle Inc. (WRSI), an international, high-tech waste management consulting company with a focus on waste-to-energy, had council members pondering the possibility of building a waste-to-energy plant on the old Weyerhaeuser mill site.

WRSI's primary focus is building cogeneration waste treatment facilities, an environmentally friendlier alternative to landfills. These facilities basically incinerate solid waste under highly controlled, clean processes to produce clean, usable energy.

Most council members were interested in finding out more about a waste-to-energy site and WRSI's presentation to the city was just that. No commitments were made or asked for, emphasized Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher.

"I'm intrigued by this idea," said Councilman Matt Larson, who once lived near a waste-to-energy plant during his college years. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let's continue to look at this ... not committing one dime. We're months away from 'in favor' or 'not in favor.'"

There are 90 waste-to-energy plants across the United States disposing of 29 million tons of municipal solid waste annually and producing 2,500 megawatts of clean power, enough to meet the power needs of 2 million homes.

King County produces 1.3 million tons of solid waste per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), waste-to-energy emits little toxins and is a very efficient means of producing energy. Energy produced by waste-to-energy technology is cleaner than energy produced by natural gas. Since February 2003, the EPA has considered this energy to be a renewable resource.

Unlike municipal solid waste incinerators of the past, Newcastle-based WRSI uses emerging technologies to meet and exceed environmentally friendly standards and expectations in Europe. WRSI is based on German engineered technology that has been put into operation at the Mullverwertung Rugenberger Damm Waste Treatment Facility in Hamburg, Germany, which has been in operation since 1999.

Hamburg, not unlike Seattle in its demographics, industries and port location, is a waste-to-energy leader. The city turns 99 percent of the waste that goes into its plant into useable products such as bottom ash (used for building roads), scrap metal, hydrochloric acid, ferrous and nonferrous metals, gypsum, salts for industrial uses and steam.

By contrast, landfills often contaminate ground water, recover no energy and are quickly filling up. By 2012, all 1,000 acres of the Cedar Hills Landfill - King County's largest landfill - will reach capacity and the site will be closed. The county is currently committed to a rail-to-landfill plan that would ship waste to Oregon once the landfill closes.

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann, president of WRSI, is a Hamburg native who graduated from Seattle Pacific University and now lives in Newcastle.

"I have a 15-month-old now. It's a big drive for me so she doesn't have to pay for our mess. Whatever you want to say about landfills, they are no comparison with waste-to-energy. [The Weyerhaeuser mill] is a contaminated site, what better to put in there than another industry that could take care of it and utilize it?"

Schmidt-Pathmann and his partner Michael McMillian of Bothell founded their company in 1998 with a subsidiary in Hamburg. The men are driven by their vision alone - they have funded WRSI entirely by themselves - and both have day jobs. While working for Costco Wholesale each day, Schmidt-Pathmann dreams of a world that uses a high-tech alternatives for the disposal of solid waste. He spends his free time, weekends and sick days working toward this goal.

But it's an uphill battle. Mass incineration got a bad rap in the mid-80s when emission standards were less stringent. But waste-to-energy has come a long way since then with all 90 facilities around the country operating efficiently and in compliance with the EPA. Schmidt-Pathmann said it's tough to change peoples' old perceptions.

"Wherever you look there are two sides to it, one that understands the process and one that remembers the old days and doesn't want to look at any differences," said Schmidt-Pathmann, who has drawn the interest of many elected officials around King County.

Spokane built a waste-to-energy facility in 1992 to cope with its ground water problem. The plant remains a popular stop for visitors and school field trips. "We want to make this a showcase," Schmidt-Pathmann said. "We stress architectural design."

If built, up to 60 to 80 trucks could be driving to the plant each day to deliver solid waste from around the county, a major sticking point for Snoqualmie City Councilman Jeff MacNichols, who was not in favor of exploring the option further.

"I can't look any resident in the face and say we're bringing every piece of solid waste in King County here for whatever reason," MacNichols said.

But Schmidt-Pathmann said his industry makes a commitment to waste-to-energy communities to maintain their roads and implement other community improvements.

"Yeah, it's more trucks, but there are ways to avoid noise, do roads around the back, etc.," said Schmidt-Pathmann, who noted most any other industry going into the old mill site would bring its own traffic as well. But the tradeoffs are many.

The clean heat produced from waste-to-energy plants in Japan and Europe are used to heat pools, greenhouses, offices and homes. WRSI is currently working with a site in Los Angeles, which has officially decided not to continue to landfill.

A waste-to-energy plant in Snoqualmie would produce up to 250 permanent high paying positions for qualified individuals and 1,600-2,500 three-year construction jobs. WRSI said a plant would also produce revenue for the city, as well as reducing its disposal costs.

The next step is for Fletcher to talk with Weyerhaeuser, which has been pondering what to do with its property and the mill site, and for City Council members to become more informed on the waste-to-energy process.

"I'd be interested in what Weyerhaeuser thinks," said City Councilwoman Maria Henriksen.

"If we're committed to economic development, we can't shut the door on an opportunity based on a 45-minute presentation," said City Councilwoman Katherine Prewitt.

King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert said she has seen this WRSI presentation four times and that the idea takes some getting used to, but considering Cedar Hills is on its way to closing, alternatives should be explored.

"Twenty seven states are doing this and it's working in other places around the world," Lambert said. "Let's at least look at it and see what parts we might want to be part of and what parts we don't want to be a part of."

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