EDITORIAL: Covanta deal raises red flags

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

It doesn’t take an expert in recycling technology to raise at least a few concerns with the city’s newly approved contract with New Jersey-based Covanta.

The Indianapolis Board of Public Works, in a 4-1 vote on Aug. 6, locked the city into a contract under which Covanta will build a $45 million recyclables recovery facility next to its Harding Street incinerator. That’s where the company now burns all of the city’s household waste under a contract that was set to expire in 2018. The new contract, negotiated by the city administration, obligates Covanta to pluck out paper, plastics, cardboard and metal (but not glass) from the current waste stream. It would sell the recyclable goods it recovers. The new contract expires at the end of 2028.

That’s a long time—and a big change—but because the new contract was billed as an extension of the existing one, it only had to pass muster with the Board of Public Works, which is loaded with appointees of Mayor Greg Ballard. Based on the length of the deal and the controversy it has generated, we think such a major step deserved a more thorough vetting by an elected board.

The idea of the new arrangement with Covanta is to boost the amount of the local waste stream that is recycled to at least 18 percent, far more than is recycled now through the city’s curbside pick-up program with Republic Services Inc. Participants in that program pay a fee.

It’s estimated that only 10 percent of city households recycle, a figure most people agree isn’t good enough. The city administration thinks its new contract is a no-brainer because it doesn’t require the public to separate its trash. Covanta will separate it. The public doesn’t have to give a thought to what can and can’t be recycled, yet we’ll magically reach 100-percent participation in recycling under the new contract.

That sounds great, but it drew howls of protest from all manner of recycling advocates, some of whom say the type of facility Covanta is building will yield subpar materials. Others are concerned about sending the message that recycling isn’t something the public needs to concern itself with.

The city can continue to promote its recycling arrangement with Republic, but the new contract comes with a big financial penalty if the city launches any alternative programs. If a better program, or better technology, comes along in the next 14 years, the city won’t be able to adopt it without paying Covanta more than $333,000 a month in damages.

At least one member of the Board of Public Works who voted for the contract said he’ll continue to separate his recyclables. If the Covanta deal is all it’s cracked up to be, it’s hard to understand why. More puzzling still is why a contract billed as a no-brainer couldn’t come before the City-County Council for more thorough review.•


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