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TulsaPeople set out to answer this question expecting to find little evidence of a green movement in our city. Turns out, we were wrong. 

We found so much information we filled an entire issue. And we have a list of topics that will have to wait until next year because we simply ran out of room.

That is a pretty good position to be in. After all, knowledge is power. Armed with this knowledge and inspired to do our part and spread the word, we compiled this in-depth look at the companies, issues, people and organizations that are fuel­ing Tulsa's efforts to keep our city and our planet green. 

A BURNING QUESTION

Tulsa's main garbage disposal facility is in danger of getting dumped. Once touted as a sound fiscal and environmentally friendly solution for disposing of Tulsa's trash, the Walter B. Hall Resource Recovery facility in west Tulsa now faces an uncertain future.

For more than two decades, the plant has reduced more than 7 million tons of municipal waste to heaps of ash in its 1,800-degree furnaces, generating marketable energy in the process. Because nearly all the city's waste goes to the plant, it also has served to reduce Tulsa's contributions to local landfills, something many environmentalists consider important. However, with the facility's $180 million debt to be retired May 1, city officials are considering whether it makes sense to maintain the plant as the final destination for our communal waste.

The reason is mainly economic. Disposing of garbage at the plant is simply too expensive compared with hauling our garbage to nearby landfills. It costs the city almost $48 per ton to dispose of trash at the plant, with half of that cost used to retire the plant's debt. After the debt is paid off, burning trash at the plant will still cost $23-50 per ton. By comparison, it only costs the city $16.501 per ton to dispose of excess garbage, beyond the burn plant's capacity, at Quarry Landfill, according to a Tulsa World article.

Although the cost of burning trash at the plant looks high now, a quarter-century ago a burn plant looked like the solution the city was seeking — a way to dispose of garbage, generate energy (in the form of steam) and spare the environment our toxic leftovers.

"Back in the late '70s or early '80s, the city did chis because at that time they believed the landfill space was going to be in short supply around here," says Stephen Schuller, chairman of the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy (TARE), a public trust. "They wanted a good, solid place to take trash to be properly disposed of, and it made a lot more sense to burn trash and generate energy from that process and only bury (the resulting) ash in the landfill."

The plant opened in 1986 and now is able to process 1,125 tons of solid waste daily. The steam created from burning the waste can be used to generate 16-5 megawatts of electricity chat is sold to American Electric Power/Public Service Co. of Oklahoma. However, according to the city, the steam usually is sold to Sun Refining and Marketing Co., which is located near the plant.

Burn plants like Tulsa's are widely used in certain parts of the country, including areas in the northeast and Florida, says Fenton Rood, director of Waste Systems Planning for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates disposal facilities in the state. "In New York City, for example, it may cost $100 per ton to take garbage to a landfill, so the expense of operating a burn plant is very attractive there."

The premise upon which Tulsa planners based their decisions in the 1980’s was that landfill space would become increasingly scarce and costly. But the opposite turned out to be true. The expected shortage never occurred, and, to Schuller's knowledge, Tulsa now operates the only burn plant in the state.

"The problem with the plant is that it costs more money to dump trash there than in local landfills," he says. "What happened is we had a whole bunch of landfill space become available in the last few years and that has driven down the price for depositing trash at landfills."

Oklahoma, as it turns out, has room to spare when it comes to getting rid of our rubbish, and Rood says the average cost of disposing of garbage in a landfill in Oklahoma is around $20 per ton. The Tulsa burn plant is commendable for its compliance with regulations and relatively clean emissions, he says, but it is costly.

"There is one thing we like to say about the Tulsa burn plant: There is no more expensive way to dispose of garbage in Oklahoma," Rood adds.

Neither a regulation-compliant burn plant nor a properly managed landfill appears to have an inherent advantage when it comes to environmental impact. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, Rood says. Landfill management has dramatically improved in the last three decades, reducing potential damage to the environment. Still, they will have to be managed by future generations. And even the most regulation-compliant burn plants will still emit dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere.

How passionate are Tulsans about what happens to their trash? Not very. At least at this point, Schuller says.

"If this issue captivated the public, then I'd be hearing about it," he says. "But I haven't."

TARE is looking at prospects with WBH Generating Co. LLC, which operates the burn plant, to make a competitive bid for a contract that would yield lower disposal costs. Schuller, though, says that while both the city and TARE want what's best for Tulsa, cost is a major factor.

“I’m not sure the city wants to spend a whole lot of money on trash disposal," he says. "Cost is probably going to be the first consideration."

If that's the case, the future of Tulsa's trash-to-energy plant could be, well, up in smoke.

PUSHING CART

Once a week or twice a week? Cart or cans?

These questions may not be as profound as Hamlet's famous query, "To be or not to be?," but they certainly are on the minds of some residents in one Tulsa neighborhood where the city is trying to start a pilot program for weekly trash pick-up using carts.

In fact, the city and its contractor, Tulsa Refuse Inc. (TRI), a consortium of trash haulers, would like to give customers an opportunity to evaluate moving to a once-a-week cart service, with everyone using go-gallon carts provided by the contractor.

Frank Erwin, section manager of field customer services for the City of Tulsa Public Works Department, says he believes the cart service would be better for everyone — helping to reduce litter and pollution, lower street repair costs and diminish injuries to garbage men who wrench their backs with overly heavy loads or get stuck by carelessly ­disposed-of sharp objects.

"Carts provide a number of advantages," Erwin says. "One reason carts are preferred is that you're only going into neighborhoods once a week, and that's better for the streets. There is less wear and tear on the streets and less wear and tear on the workers. Carts have built-in lids and wheels and they can be easily rolled around. They're very convenient. The lids allow for better covering and the prevention of spillage and litter blowing about. In many cases, people have trash cans, but oftentimes the lids don't stay with cans over a period of time.

With the exception of the city's north­ west quadrant, Tulsans currently receive twice-weekly garbage collection service by TRI. In the northwest part of Tulsa, the city operates a once-a-week cart service in which residents deposit their refuse in go-gallon carts capable of holding 200 pounds of trash.

Cart service already is being employed throughout the state and local areas, including Oklahoma City, Owasso, Jenks, Sand Springs and Glenpool. The expectation is that once people in Tulsa try it, they will quickly be won over, Erwin says. That's why the city is eager to launch a pilot program in the Cooper neighborhood addition near East 21st Street and South Garnett Avenue. Before implementing the program, however, Erwin's department is looking for overwhelming support.

"We've got approximately 63 percent approval right now," Erwin says. "In politics, 60 percent is a supermajority, but the threshold is higher for this pro­ gram. The reason is we don't want to force it on people."

Erwin says twice-a-week trash service costs $14.53, and subscribers for re­ cycling pay $2 a month extra for twice­ monthly pickups. If the pilot program goes into effect, the rates will actually drop in that area, to $13-37.

Those who also recycle and participate in the cart service will see a monthly savings of $3, Erwin says.

Jim Perkin, president of the Cooper Neighborhood Association, already is a fan of cart service. Perkin lived in Owasso for 10 years, where he came to appreciate the service. He has tried to persuade his Cooper neighbors, but meetings to inform residents "have been poorly attended," he says.

"A large part of this neighborhood is Spanish-speaking and maybe some don't understand, and then there are others who don't have a preference either way," he says.

The organization is working to get 75 percent approval from respondents. Although Perkin has encountered a few neighbors opposed to carts, mainly because they don't understand the service, he believes that a little bit of education would go a long way toward changing minds.

The city also is trying to enlist another Tulsa neighborhood on South Peoria Avenue, Swan Lake, to sign up for the program, as well as the Florence Park area, Erwin says.

"The hope is that once people sign up, they will love it," he says. "We will make (it) known and then try to expand it citywide."

Jim Hinds, president of Tulsa Refuse Inc., says a recent open meeting with Cooper neighborhood residents allowed them to ask questions, and although some were skeptical of the switch to a cart system at first, many have since changed their minds.

"Once we do this, I think everybody will really like (it)," he says. Hinds says that in the future, the pro­ gram should reduce costs because people won't have to buy and replace their own trash cans and it will decrease injuries to workers. It's an evolving system that can conform to customers' needs, he says.

Erwin says he knows it will take some time for the cart service to catch on, if only because people at this point just aren't too fired up about talking trash.

"Most people just want it gone on a regular basis that they can count on," he says.

WATER YOU WAITING FOR

Keeping Tulsa's water clean isn't just the job of the workers at the city's water treatment plants; it's the job of every citizen, water quality experts say. But without knowing it — because of a lack of education or awareness — citizens may be contaminating area creeks, streams and ponds, poisoning plant and animal life and diminishing overall water quality.

"One of the biggest problems we have is non-point-source pollution (pollution for which the point of origin is not well defined) from neighborhoods," says Mary Coley, community involvement coordinator for the City of Tulsa's Wet in the City program. Wet in the City offers educational programs designed to inform people about water issues and taking care of local water resources.

"We're talking about stuff from yards, streets and businesses that washes into storm drains, creeks and into rivers," she says.

Pollutants can range from fertilizers and pesticides to used motor oil, antifreeze, manure, grease and trash. All these substances can seriously degrade local water quality and biodiversity.

"People continue to put things down drains that they shouldn't," Coley says. "They need to realize the damage that can be done and that the storm sewer system and the sanitary sewer system are two different things. We're part of the natural (water) cycle and we need to do what we can to make sure the water we use goes back into the environment as clean as possible."

Coley is quick to point out that Tulsa's drinking-water quality is perfectly safe, and in fact meets or exceeds all federal standards. Each year, Tulsans consume more than 39 billion gallons of water — that's an average of more than 100,000 gallons per person.

"Our water is among the very best in the country," Coley says. "Our standards are very high."

The city can supply up to 220 million gallons per day of treated water through its two treatment plants: Mohawk, which supplies north and central Tulsa, and the A.B. Jewell plant, which supplies south and central Tulsa.

"Our greatest issue that we've dealt with the last 12 years has been pollution into our (drinking) water source lakes at Spavinaw and Eucha," she says. "We've had significant additional expenses to treat the water."

Chicken litter fertilizer was identified as a prime culprit, resulting in additional nitrogen and phosphorous in the source lakes that fueled rampant algae growth. The algae depleted the water of oxygen and imparted an unpleasant odor and taste to the water. The water is treated now so that most Tulsans are not aware of the problem, but such treatment processes are more costly.

When it broke down and decomposed, "the algae released a chemical called geosmin into the water that gave it the smell and taste, and we had to treat it out of the water," Coley says.

According to a report by the Water Quality Division of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the City of Tulsa had spent more than $4 million to treat this condition through early 2002.

The City of Tulsa sued to protect its source lakes and new regulations have limited the amount of poultry litter that can be applied to lands within the watershed areas of those lakes. Still, Coley says it's not enough. The temporary settlement will expire in 2008, so she is working to get a state law to enforce the restrictions.

"(The poultry industry) was required to make changes, but part of the issue is that the standards and rules were not strong enough," Coley says. "Yes, they reduced what they were applying, and that reduction is good, but that reduction is not enough." This is because the litter has residual effects on the water, so even a small addition compounds the previous deposits, she says.

While drinking-water purity is vital, the quality of water in Tulsa-area creeks and ponds also is important. The Oklahoma Blue Thumb Program's Tulsa chapter monitors the health of 21 Tulsa County creeks. Volunteers test the waters monthly in an ongoing effort to monitor the impact on these waterways and drainages. Lack of oxygen in the water and a reduction in biodiversity can be signs of a creek in distress, possibly contaminated by runoff from urban and suburban neighborhoods.

"The biggest problem is that people fail to understand their individual impacts," says Cheryl Cheadle, Blue Thumb coordinator for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. "Everything you pour down a storm drain goes into the creeks and river. Heavy applications of fertilizers and pesticides, even grass clippings, are not good for creeks."

Blue Thumb attempts to counteract these water-quality transgressions through educational programs that encourage people to pay attention to any impact their activities might have on water quality.

"It can be as simple as keeping your car well-maintained, so it doesn't leak oil or other fluids," Cheadle says. "It's watching what you apply and how much you apply in pesticides and fertilizers. It's not pouring anything down storm drains."

If a creek runs through your neighborhood or behind your house, Cheadle recommends that you treat it with respect and allow a riparian corridor, or wild area, extending ideally 25 feet to 50 feet from the bank, for nature to flourish. She says, though, that even eight, 10 or 12 feet will help.

"Leave it in a natural state and let there be a wildlife corridor," she says. "I think most people will appreciate the gains they notice in the number of songbirds and critters."

At the end of the day, water quality depends on the actions each of us takes, she says.

"We need to be good stewards and take care of the water and the wildlife," she says. "We have to remember what lives downstream and the impact that our actions have on the people downstream and their needs."

For more information on Tulsa water-quality issues, call Tulsa Wet in the City at 596-270. To learn more about Blue Thumb or to volunteer, call 280-1595.

RECYCLING

Tulsans produce more than 400,000 tons of trash annually. Some Tulsans, however, have embraced recycling as an environmentally friendly way to spare trees, save energy and reduce pollution. According to the City of Tulsa, since November 1999, residents have recycled more than 5,548 tons of recyclable materials, including paper, aluminum, plastic and glass, through the city's Curbside Recycling Program.

Residents who use this program get their recyclables picked up twice monthly and pay an extra $2 for this sub­scription service. But this program, consisting of 7,590 subscribers (as of June 2006), isn't the only way Tulsans and other area residents have contributed to a better environment. The Metropolitan Environmental Trust (MET) operates depots that serve as 24-hour collection points for various materials. Those materials include everything from aluminum, plastic and paper to batteries, motor oil, and antifreeze.

COUNTDOWN TO A GREENER LIFE

Michael Patton, executive director of the Metropolitan Environmental Trust, says a greener life is just five steps away.

Spend five minutes under your sink. Inventory what chemicals you have and what you plan to do with them. Proper use, storage and disposal of household chemicals lessens the risk of childhood poisonings and makes your home, neighbor­ hood and planet safer.

Talk four friends into recycling. One out of five Tulsans recycles, and if each one of us found four

more, everybody would recycle. Start with the easy things: an issue of TulsaPeople can be recycled at the curb, at any MET site or at more than 200 schools and churches in the area.

Change your thermostat three degrees. Make it cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer. Three degrees seems like a lot at first, but your energy­ consumption savings can be as much as 10 percent. This also will save you green in your wallet.

Drive two miles under the speed limit. The fuel-consumption savings also can be as much as 10 percent, and your vehicle will produce less harmful emissions. Even buying gas can release hydrocarbons, so fewer fill-ups also means cleaner air.

Plant one tree a year. Plant a tree to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or memorial. Trees absorb carbon gas that humans breathe out and produce oxygen that we breathe in. A fully mature tree produces as much oxy­gen each season as 10 people need in a year.

(1) comment

JKro

This was a great issue because we went to a recycled paper. We did the first split run cover too. There were 4 versions of the cover, each with a different person. When you picked up an issue of the rack the one under it was different. This created a lot of buzz around the design changes that we made with this issue. It received a lot of positive feedback from readers and advertisers alike.

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