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SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / JOHN LOVE Fitchburg State sophomore P.J. Carmichael talks about the hazards of living near trash incinerators during a press conference by FSU's chapter of MassPIRG on Thursday.
FITCHBURG -- Fitchburg State University students Thursday rallied for a change in state trash-burning policy.
Today at 5 p.m. is the deadline to submit comments on a portion of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's proposed Solid Waste Master Plan. Students at FSU's chapter of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group held a press conference Thursday afternoon that warned of environmental harm that comes from burning trash.
For more than 20 years the state has banned the construction of new trash incinerators. The MassPIRG students said the plan would lift that moratorium and allow more trash incinerators to be built. Currently the state burns about 5.4 million tons of trash each year and buries the ashes.
"Any creation of more (incinerators) would just be a step in the wrong direction," said Chris Klarich, campus organizer for MassPIRG at FSU.
He said their goal is to reach zero waste and instead of destroying rubbish they would rather see less created through increased efforts to compost, reduce, reuse and recycle.
The group previously collected 1,000 comments at FSU to send to MassDEP about the issue.
Ed Coletta, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the moratorium is being modified, not lifted, and will still block new incinerators.
"We've made it very clear that we've made a proposal to modify," said Coletta, adding that the state has no intention to allow any new incinerators.
Instead, the modification would allow a limited amount of alternative approaches to turn rubbish into a gas or liquid that can be reused as renewable fuel, energy or fertilizer. This includes using high heat, microbes or chemicals to dissolve the trash.
Coletta said the state wants to try these alternatives, but the moratorium designed for incinerators blocks these approaches as it is currently written. The plan does not create any new rubbish-dissolving plants, but would allow a limited number to be approved. They would have to go through local and state permitting processes and show a reduction in energy use and waste over incinerators.
The experiment would allow no more than 350,000 tons of waste to be disposed of this year, which is half the annual disposable-waste shortfall.
"Even if we do all the recycling and all the reusing, we still anticipate 700,000 tons of stuff that has no place to go," said Coletta. He said the master plan also includes ways of increasing composting and recycling. That includes a requirement for large institutions like FSU to compost all their food waste.
Kirstie Pecci, staff attorney for MassPIRG, called the DEP's ongoing summary of the issue "spin." While her organization supports other approaches like anaerobic digestion method that uses microbes to break down trash, she said the only information presented to their organization from the DEP concerns high-heat methods. Those methods bring the trash up to 5,000 degrees and burn the gas created for energy.
"The point is that all the same problems exist," said Pecci. She said they still produce ash and pollution, but it's hard to say if the pollution is better or worse than traditional incinerators as they create different levels of CO2, dioxin and ash.
She added that the high-heat plants are considered incinerators by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
At Thursday's press conference, FSU sophomore P.J. Carmichael, 20, said his family in Saugus was harmed by a nearby trash incinerator and his family believes it is the reason his father got thyroid cancer.
Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong praised the students for being concerned about long-term issues that will impact their world.
"We don't want our hills to be hills of trash," said Wong.
Follow Michael Hartwell at facebook.com/michaelhartwell or on Twitter @ Sehartwell.
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