State official to Virginia Beach: Don’t send ‘wrong message’ to Navy on trash decision

A senior state official and retired admiral has warned Virginia Beach and neighboring cities that they could send “the wrong message” to the Navy and hamper its shipyard operations if Hampton Roads changes course on how it handles trash disposal, as is being considered.

Virginia Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs John Harvey outlined his concerns in a letter this week to Beach Mayor Will Sessoms. Harvey wrote that if the city and other members of the Southeastern Public Services Authority were to pull out of a program in which waste is burned and converted into steam for Norfolk Naval Shipyard, it would make it more costly and more difficult for the shipyard “to perform its mission in a time of declining defense budgets.”

Harvey wrote that “with the growing likelihood of some type of base closure process in the future,” now is not the time to add costs and inconvenience to one of the region’s largest employers.

“Making it more costly for NNSY to do business to the potential detriment of the Navy, and the shipyard’s 9000 employees who live throughout the Hampton Roads region, is the wrong message to send at this time,” he wrote.

Harvey noted in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by Southside Daily, that he had recently learned that the regional authority is considering ending its reliance on that waste-to-energy program in 2018, when a contract committing the cities expires. That program is the same one that sends steam to Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The regional trash authority’s members are considering an option in which they would increase their reliance on landfills rather than continue the more costly waste-to-energy program.

Wheelabrator Technologies, the company that runs the waste-to-energy plant in Portsmouth, is under contract to provide steam to the Navy until 2023, so if the region stopped feeding it trash to burn, the company would turn to plants that use conventional fossil fuels to meet its contractual requirements with the Navy, Harvey wrote.

Sessoms, reached Friday, said he is taking the letter “very seriously” as the city explores its options to find the cheapest trash disposal strategy.

The City Council was read Harvey’s letter during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday. Several officials met with the council during the session. Councilwoman Amelia Ross-Hammond said Friday they talked about what the city would do with trash after 2018, but she offered few specifics.

“You’ll hear something very soon,” she said.

Joel Rubin, a representative for Wheelabrator, said Virginia Beach’s decision weighs heaviest among all the authority’s members. The city supplies 35 percent of the waste.

“If they are not a part of this, then it makes it very difficult for everyone else to be,” Rubin said of Wheelabrator’s waste-to-energy program.

The Beach currently pays about half of the $125-per-ton fee for trash disposal that other cities do, because of a cap on fees that Virginia Beach negotiated years ago. That will change at year’s end, when that cap expires.

Virginia Beach’s looming trash fee increase is a major contributor to the city’s projected $33 million hole in next year’s budget, and a reason the city is looking toward alternative trash disposal methods.

Sessoms said he does not “have enough information to even lean” toward a decision on the future of trash disposal for the city.

“It will be a big part of my decision-making process,” he said of the letter.

Harvey added in his letter that from a “broader environmental quality perspective, I believe SPSA would want to think carefully before cancelling a successful green-energy program and revert to the use of landfills, or other untested technologies, to deal with large amounts of solid waste.”

The proposal “to end the current waste-to-energy program constitutes, in my view, a significant step into the unknown because of the potentially negative outcomes for the south Hampton Roads region,” he wrote.

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