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Incinerator getting greener; revenue remains a challenge

Construction continues this summer on a multi-million dollar project at Red Wing's incinerator. The improvements promise to make the city's incinerator more efficient and environmentally friendly.

But the project by itself won't position the incinerator to make a profit.

In recent years residents have expressed frustration as the incinerator has lost money. While the city considers the operation an enterprise - meaning it's supposed to generate enough revenue to support itself - between 2004 and 2007 the city used a total of $1 million in taxpayer dollars to support the operation.

Bob Stark, deputy director of solid waste, said the project has improved the Bench Street facility in numerous ways, but the ultimate solution to its money problems lies elsewhere.

"We need to find more volume to make it so it's not a burden money-wise," he said.

@subheads:Bottom line: Volume

@Normal: There are many factors affecting the incinerator's profitability, but Public Work Director Rick Moskwa said the bottom line is the amount of trash it processes in a year.

The majority of the operation's revenue comes from tipping fees, the price paid to bring trash to the facility. Red Wing's tipping fees are set at $58 a ton and the city currently process about 20,000 tons of solid waste a year. Moskwa said the operation would need to process 30,000 tons a year to be profitable.

"The amount we need is in Goodhue County," Moskwa said.

But the city has been unable to persuade the municipalities and companies responsible for that waste to bring it to Red Wing.

The situation is complicated by Red Wing and Goodhue County's ongoing involvement in a state-imposed memorandum of understanding. The parties, along with state officials, have been meeting regularly to hammer out solutions to a number of solid waste issues.

Red Wing City Council President Mike Schultz said that process remains at an impasse.

The facility's financial problems and the recent improvement project are not unrelated, however. Stark noted the efficiencies created by the project will allow the facility to process more waste in a year than it otherwise could have.

True cost?

When residents complain about the incinerator's financial performance, Moskwa says they fail to take into account its environmental benefits. The alternative to incinerating garbage is to landfill it, which Moskwa notes is less desirable according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

He said the incinerator's full worth isn't visible on a ledger sheet.

"What are we doing with our garbage? We're taking care if it," Moskwa said. "The incinerator is the number one sustainable thing we do in Red Wing.

"We saved 20,000 tons a year from the landfill over the last 10 years. Is there value to that?"

Red Wing City Council member Dan Bender said the incinerator's financial woes raise tough questions. While he says incinerating garbage is the most responsible tack the city can take environmentally, he also sympathizes with constituents who are troubled by its high costs.

"Where's the right balance between losing money and doing the right thing?" Bender asked. "It's one of the things I've been trying to figure out."

Bender said residents' patience is waning and that the city needs to find a solution to the incinerator's problem in the near-term.

City Council Administrator Kay Kuhlmann said the city has received word that Northfield may be interested in bringing their solid waste to Red Wing.