An effort to build a waste-to-energy incinerator in Frederick County remains on ice as the state weighs a trio of environmental permits.
County officials expected the permitting process would be wrapped up by August. More than a month later, they are not sure how much longer it will take. With leaders from Frederick County, Carroll County and possibly other jurisdictions locked in a holding pattern, Commissioners President Blaine Young says the fate of the waste-to-energy project is unclear.
"I think it's a coin toss," Young said. "I don't feel confident to say the project is dead. I don't feel confident to say the project is a go."
Frederick County leaders are waiting to determine whether it still makes financial sense to build a facility that would consume trash to generate electricity. Carroll County, a partner in the project, wants to back out, but must find a replacement or pay a fine. And no replacement partner is going to show serious interest until the project secures its approvals from the Maryland Department of the Environment, Young said.
"Nobody really knows where these permits are at and where the issue is here," he said.
A spokeswoman for the state agency wrote in late September that "MDE is still working through the permit process" and doesn't have a set date for completion.
Michael Marschner, Frederick County's special projects manager, said MDE had extended its deadline for comments on the air, water and soil discharge permits and was sorting through additional input.
If there's nothing from MDE by the year's end, commissioners will have to start talking about alternatives to the project, Young said.
County leaders began discussing an incinerator several years ago as they grappled with dwindling landfill space and the expense of trucking trash to distant dump sites. It now costs more than $51 per ton to haul and dispose of waste outside of the county, Marschner said.
Carroll County leaders initially wanted to partner with Frederick County to build the trash-burning facility. However, Carroll County retreated from its initial interest. In June, Carroll County commissioners set aside funds to pay the $3 million penalty for backing out of the project.
Carroll County officials could avoid the fine by finding a replacement partner for Frederick County, but if they are unable to do so before the environmental permits are issued, they plan to simply bow out.
Bruce Holstein, an opponent of the waste-to-energy effort, said MDE officials might be biding their time to see what happens to the project.
"Everybody is waiting for somebody else to do something," he said. "If I'm correct that MDE is waiting to see whether this thing falls apart, this may go on for quite some time."
Young says the incinerator is not a financially viable option unless Frederick County has a partner.
But it makes no sense for Frederick County to call it quits at this point, he said; doing so would mean sharing preliminary project costs with Carroll County rather than letting the neighboring jurisdiction back out and pay the full penalty.
If the permits are approved, two of them will be good for five years. The air permit requires that construction begin within 18 months and finish within a "reasonable period of time."
In the event that MDE denies the permits, the decision would likely be appealed, Marschner said.
Young said choosing between the incinerator and alternatives might be the first large decision confronting county leaders after the 2014 election.
Officials could decide to continue trucking trash out of the area, Marschner said. The county's main waste disposal contract is good through April 24, 2015.
Opening a new landfill inside Frederick County is another way to go, but could take 10 years or more, he said.
Holstein said Carroll County leaders are exploring options such as a pay-as-you-throw program that gives an incentive to recycle.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.