With two giant canyons expected to be filled to capacity with Orange County's trash by 1990, waste management officials eyed a promising alternative: a trash-burning plant that would turn garbage into saleable electricity.
Similar projects in neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties were well under way, and Orange County seemed eager to jump on the wave of the future.
But a consulting engineer came back late last year with bad news: The cost outweighed the benefits for now.
"The consultant's report was pretty gloomy," recalled Frank Bowerman, director of the county's waste management program.
The report noted that the tax credits and special depreciation allowances for alternative fuel systems, which encouraged Los Angeles city and county officials to begin their projects, were no longer widely available, Bowerman said.
As well, utilities are no longer as eager to buy kilowatt hours because of the falling price of fuel oil on the international market, Bowerman said.
"So the picture that encouraged Lancer (Los Angeles City Energy Recovery) and the other Los Angeles County projects hasn't got those same benefits for us," Bowerman said.
A 500-ton, trash-to-energy plant would cost $27 to $28 a ton, according to the consultant's report. By contrast, the cost to dump directly at four county-operated landfills is now $6 a ton, and $14 a ton when trash is dumped at intermediate transfer stations.
"So you see, the use of a waste-to-energy (plant) would not be cost-effective at this time," Bowerman said.
Bowerman said members of the Board of Supervisors and the county's Waste Management Advisory Commission also remain concerned about air pollutants and possible health hazards from dioxins, which have been produced by trash-burning plants on the East Coast and in Europe.
"So little is known about the exposure risk to the general public. . . . But there is cause for concern," Bowerman said.
Given the unfavorable economic picture and the unanswered health and environmental questions, Bowerman said, supervisors and the commission have decided "to wait and see what the results are in Los Angeles" area projects.
"We think it's an intelligent approach," he said. "Since the financial market is depressed for building these plants now anyway, it's a good time to wait and watch."
In the meantime, supervisors and waste management officials continue their search for new landfill sites to replace Coyote Canyon, which is expected to close in 1988, and Santiago Canyon, which is projected to close by 1990. Even the county-owned Olinda landfill, which got an additional 50 acres last year, is expected to reach capacity soon.