Robert F. Jakubowicz: Pittsfield needs long-term waste plan
PITTSFIELD >> The announcement by the operator that it would close its Pittsfield waste-to-energy plant, adds another major problem to the city's economic woes. Trash collection and disposal is one of those necessary municipal services that local taxpayers take for granted. They give little thought to problems that can develop over where and how the trash is disposed of, which can be difficult and expensive to solve.
But now with the problem at hand in the city, much thought is going to have to be given to solving it quickly. The proposal by Mayor Linda Tyer to use a reported sum of $562,000 from the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund together with some state tax credits to keep the current plant operating for only the next four years is no plan. Rather, it is a last resort option for the lack of a plan.
When the last trash disposal crisis occurred in the late 1970s, the immediate objective by city officials was to find a plan for a long-term solution and not just kick it down the road for a few years as the mayor's proposal would do. City officials have known about the planned closing since July but nothing has been reported about a long term plan.
I was a member of the Pittsfield City Council at the time when the city's landfill area had reached its capacity for the disposal of thrash. The initial solution to the problem was the then traditional one of finding another suitable landfill area in the city. Several possible areas were identified quickly, but the residents in and around those areas were all against such a municipal project in their neighborhood.
This prompted city officials to find a long-term way to solve what was on the verge of becoming a trash disposal crisis. We relied on a commission that had been created to deal with the problem, led by a local Western Massachusetts Electric executive here and an engineer who really knew his stuff.
Unlike our efforts as city officials, who became bogged down with trying to solve the problem by the then usual method to dispose of trash by establishing a newly located city landfill, the commission went to work quickly and came up with a recommendation for the kind of waste-to-energy facility that exists today. This was something new to us.
GE in opposition
While the City Council and mayor were reviewing this commission's proposal, we were surprised by General Electric, which then still had a large presence in the city and several employees on the City Council, deciding to become involved in the matter. GE's local public relations officials, who acted as lobbyists here for the company, told us that the company opposed such a facility because it was too costly and that it would not work. The mayor and the City Council were even invited to a dinner conference at GE to hear from a couple of its engineers whom we were told had conducted a study of such facilities.
The meal turned out to consist of skimpy, unappetizing fare in a Styrofoam container. The presentation by the GE engineers, as to why such a facility would not work was equally as bad as our dinner, according to the engineer on our commission.
GEs continued its opposition. But mainly because of the expertise, advice and advocacy of our engineer on the commission and its chairman we decided to go forward with the project. The facility was built and Pittsfield's trash disposal system was significantly changed from its former city-run collection and disposal at a city landfill. This served the city well for more than three decades as well as providing energy for Crane & Company in Dalton until now.
Unfortunately, the problem with such privately operated facilities performing a government function is that they do it for a profit. And worse, the government department charged with providing the services is dismantled. Reportedly the operator of the facility here now says that the high operating costs have made the operation unprofitable. And there is no city department ready to step in immediately to collect and dispose of trash here.
What the city needs is expert preliminary advice on a viable long-term plan and it would take to implement it. This should have been the first order of the business for the city, rather than the last option of proposing a large payment to buy time.
This is a serious health and cost problem for the residents of the city which must be solved by its officials. It should become a priority for them. It is unlike another major city economic problem, such as waiting for some large business to solve the problem by deciding to move here.
I cannot understand why the only reported action by the city to this point is a costly stopgap proposal to buy more time.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a regular contributor to The Eagle.