Flames burning inside two giant boilers that consume about 400 tons of garbage in Davis County daily are a fitting symbol of the 10-year controversy that has surrounded construction of a garbage incinerator plant near Hill Air Force Base.
What started as an idea in 1978 is now a reality - a reality that Davis County officials hope will prove to be the long-range boon they have predicted.With federal guidelines governing the disposal of garbage in landfills becoming more and more stringent, local officials are finding the once routine task of moving garbage from curb side to landfill rapidly becoming a political hot potato.
The idea of replacing open, smelly, rat-infested landfills with a clean, efficient, burn-plant operation is the kind of prospect that political leaders relish. After all, who wants a landfill in his or her back yard?
But Davis County officials quickly found that garbage is a smelly issue - whether it's disposed of in a landfill or in a high-tech waste-to-energy plant. Converting what appeared to be a well-based concept to reality turned into a major headache as residents from two communities made it clear that not only didn't they want a landfill in their back yard, they also didn't consider the modern burn plant a viable alternative.
Opponents were extremely critical of the concept because Davis County was not facing a crisis, and projections indicated two existing landfill operations would be adequate for another 15 to 30 years. To invest $54 million in a project that would be the first using Belgian technology in the United States was unsettling.
Proponents felt embarking on a long-range solution before being faced with a crisis was the responsible approach. By going to a burn-plant concept and reducing the garbage volume by up to 75 percent, they argued, the county would not have to face the issue of landfill relocation for another 50 years.
The fact that the plant could produce steam for sale to nearby Hill Air Force Base to help cover the operating cost was an added bonus in their view, reducing the financial burden to the general taxpayer. While finding a new landfill site was not considered critical, a study indicated the only viable site left in the county was just south of the Oakridge Country Club in Farmington near the junction of I-15 and U.S. 89. That area is now being developed into home sites.
Getting the idea off the ground was no easy task, however. The following is a brief chronology of events that led to the creation of the Davis plant.
- 1980, Davis County is asked to participate in a Wasatch Front Regional Council study concerning resource recovery plants.
- January 1981, Davis County Council of Governments forms ad hoc committee to study concept.
- Early 1982, three potential sites are selected near Hill Air Force Base. Layton site favored. First public outcry surfaces. Layton officials fail to publicly endorse project, and Clearfield site is eventually chosen.
- Mid-1982, problems with $54 million industrial revenue bond package delay project. District overcomes opposition to get needed air-quality permits. The standards are the most rigid imposed in the United States to that time.
- Early 1984, Clearfield, Bountiful and Layton refuse to join reformed district. The plant size is reduced.
- May 16, 1984, Clearfield rescinds the conditional-use permit. The project's future is thrown into doubt. Officials say project may be dead.
- May 30, 1984, county commissioners keep project alive by holding bond sale public hearing. The move eventually saves the project.
- October 1984, a site east of Hill Air Force Base in unincorporated county area is selected. County planners approve conditional-use permit.
- Dec. 31, 1984, last-minute snags resolved, officials complete bond sale.
- April 1985, court rejects legal challenge. Construction begins in August.
- January 1986, the district talks with Weber County cities dissatisfied with that county's landfill operation. No contracts result, but Morgan City and Morgan County enter the picture and join the district.
- December 1986, Layton agrees to join the district on condition the city not lose its part ownership in a north Davis landfill. Clearfield follows suit in January 1987. Only Bountiful remains out of the district, a situation that remains to date.
- Early 1987, falling natural gas prices mean the steam contract with Hill AFB will not generate projected revenues. The impact is not catastrophic but means tipping fees for cities will increase from projected $12 per ton. Tipping fees likely to reach $25 per ton.
- Spring 1987, a leveraged lease with Chrysler Capital Inc. is proposed to stabilize economic factors by selling the plant to settle bond debts while giving the district an option to repurchase the plant after 20 years for a nominal fee. Negotiations fail when Chrysler insists on a no-loss guarantee.
- Fall 1987, the plant does not meet its October completion goal. Also, air-quality tests failed to meet permit standards. Opponents take new aim at the project and renew their predictions of doom.
- January 1988, the plant remains incomplete, and air-quality problems persist. The district seeks new permits, claiming flawed research was used for the original permit applications.
- October 1988, the new permits are approved and the district takes control of the plant on Oct. 16. Problems remain but the district believes those difficulties will be resolved.
For many, the project has proven a political death sentence. The burn-plant issue has been credited in the defeat of several city officials who lost re-election bids over the past eight years. It also continues to surface as a political issue in countywide elections.
But the reality is that the plant is no longer just a concept or idea. It is real concrete and metal. It is burning garbage. All that remains to be settled now is whether the proponents were enlightened public servants who battled the odds to guarantee the future, or whether opponents were right and Davis County will be stuck with a $54 million white elephant.
Only time will tell.