Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Incinerator: A Story of Unintended Consequences

By:  Bob Adelmann
10/14/2011
       
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Incinerator: A Story of Unintended Consequences

The announcement on Wednesday that the City Council of Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, voted to file for bankruptcy was the latest in a long series of federal mandates, bad luck, and poor planning that has plagued the city since the early 1970s. The Harrisburg Resource Recovery Facility, less elegantly referred to as “the incinerator that burns money,” was built in 1972. The estimated cost to build it was $15 million and was sold to the city based on projections that it could burn enough trash to generate sufficient steam to be sold to cover its costs and debt service. But unexpected repairs required additional financings so that by the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered it was emitting unacceptably high levels of dioxins and shut it down, the city owed $94 million for the facility. 
 
The current Mayor of Harrisburg, Linda Thompson, was on the City Council at the time and remembers that outside consultants had recommended retrofitting the incinerator:
 
They sold us [on] the fact that this incinerator, once it’s retrofitted, would make enough money to pay the old debt and the new debt…. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

The announcement on Wednesday that the City Council of Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, voted to file for bankruptcy was the latest in a long series of federal mandates, bad luck, and poor planning that has plagued the city since the early 1970s.

The Harrisburg Resource Recovery Facility, less elegantly referred to as “the incinerator that burns money,” was built in 1972. The estimated cost to build it was $15 million and was sold to the city based on projections that it could burn enough trash to generate sufficient steam to be sold to cover its costs and debt service. But unexpected repairs required additional financings so that by the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered it was emitting unacceptably high levels of dioxins and shut it down, the city owed $94 million for the facility. 
 
The current Mayor of Harrisburg, Linda Thompson, was on the City Council at the time and remembers that outside consultants had recommended retrofitting the incinerator:

They sold us [on] the fact that this incinerator, once it’s retrofitted, would make enough money to pay the old debt and the new debt…. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

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