Company's Proposed Plant Would Convert Garbage to Energy

Cochise County took a small first step toward letting a California startup build a $50 million plant meant to turn garbage into energy.

BISBEE, Arizona — Cochise County took a small first step toward letting a California startup build a $50 million plant meant to turn garbage into energy.

County supervisors directed their legal staff Tuesday to draft a nonbinding memo with Global Energy Resources, despite the objections of some residents who fear emissions from the facility will degrade air quality.

"I was hoping it would die today," said Terry Nordbrock, co-founder of Families Against Cancer and Toxics.

Company officials say they need the county to express some interest before they spend money on engineering for the so-called plasma arc converter, which would probably be sited at an existing landfill between Benson and Sierra Vista.

Critics describe the plant as a glorified garbage incinerator. But supporters say the cutting-edge technology won't pose a health hazard and is a greener, more cost-effective alternative to dumping trash in a landfill.

Global Energy Resources would build the plant on its own dime and make its money by generating power from gases created during the breakdown of garbage under extreme heat. The company could also sell that gas outright and market other oily and solid byproducts that it says will be safe.

"We're taking contaminants out of the region on a continual basis and that, my friends, is mitigation," said Michael Theroux, a former Kern County, Calif., environmental regulator retained by the company. "Realistically, throwing things in a hole in the ground isn't working anymore."

While the technologies at the heart of the plant have all been used before, no company has linked them in the way Global Energy Resources proposes. The first line on the venture's one-page Web site says it "develops and owns facilities that convert waste products to energy and/or synfuels," but company officials acknowledge the Cochise County plant would be their first.

It's still unclear whether a majority of the three supervisors will vote to sign the memo, but two board members said Tuesday they saw no harm in having the county and the company exchange more information.

A letter or memo signed by the county and the company could be construed as an implied contract if it set up expectations, Deputy County Attorney Britt Hanson told supervisors. But, he said, such documents could also be drafted so they don't create any obligations or expose the county to a lawsuit from the company if a deal fell through.

So, at the end of the two-hour meeting, Board Chairman Patrick Call directed his staff "to put together a nonbinding memorandum of understanding that is going to have to be very nonbinding." That prompted some snickers from the audience of about 50 people, most of whom were opposed to the waste-to-energy plant.

Supervisor Paul Newman had sharp questions for Global Energy Resources officials and told the audience he would prefer the company test its process in another jurisdiction. Although unable to stop the board from moving forward, Newman did get company officials to agree to hire an independent expert of the county's choosing to evaluate plans for the facility.

"I thought I got something out of them," he said later.

Even if Cochise County approves the project, Global Energy Resources will still need to obtain permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. The agency would look at emissions, discharge of water, effects on the local aquifer and generation of solid and hazardous wastes, said Sue Keith, ADEQ's community liaison for Southeast Arizona.

Obtaining the required permits would probably take at least a year, she said.

Global Energy Resources President John Cummings told the board it would take 18 to 24 months for the company to design and build the facility in Whetstone, 50 miles southeast of Downtown Tucson.

County officials say there's still plenty of room at the existing landfill there, but the plasma arc converter could greatly extend the dump's life and thereby save taxpayers millions of dollars.

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