ReVenture Under Review
Tom McKittrick wants to build a development that gasifies our trash, turns it into electricity, and creates 1,000 jobs at a new green-energy innovation hub. It sounds almost too good to be true
Tom McKittrick, who is tall and thin and possesses the charisma and silver hair of Bill Clinton, has explained ReVenture Park to so many people, at so many meetings, that he comes across as slightly exasperated when anyone questions him about it. He chuckles to himself and shifts his feet before answering even the most direct questions in an often-roundabout way. He’s used to pitching investors and wowing them with ideas. What he’s not used to is people quizzing him about air-quality permits and health dangers associated with substances like dioxin, a chemical that’s released when plastic is burned. He wants people to take him at his word, reminding everyone that his family lives in Charlotte and that he doesn’t want his name associated with air pollution.
McKittrick, a SouthPark businessman in his mid-forties, moved his family to Charlotte from Indiana in 2001. He is not someone you’d picture as a trash collector. But he does want your trash, because without it, his plans for ReVenture, which he brands as an “eco-industrial park,” may fall through. That’s because the park’s centerpiece is a biomass plant that will incinerate trash to generate electricity. The state labels that “renewable energy.” Environmentalists call it trouble.
ReVenture could be a boon for western Mecklen-burg County and even Gaston County, an area that suffered mightily when textile mills were shuttered in the 1990s. The development could attract green-energy start-ups, and McKittrick says it may provide as many as a thousand new jobs. Mecklenburg would benefit, too, by paying ReVenture below-industry-average rates for municipal waste removal.
In fact, the whole thing sounds almost too good to be true. A local businessman takes a Superfund site located by the Catawba River, cleans it up, and turns it into a place that generates jobs and electricity while gasifying our garbage, which prevents landfills from filling up and saves taxpayers money.
Environmentalists, and others, worry that Mecklenburg County’s already compromised air quality—ranked tenth worst in the nation by the American Lung Association—will only get worse if an incinerator’s smoke stack is added to the hundreds already permitted to spew pollution into the area’s atmosphere. They wonder why taxpayers would pay a company to take our trash, only to turn around and make money on it.
They’d also like to remind people that landfills and incinerators aren’t our only waste-management options—there’s also recycling and composting, which they say we don’t do nearly enough of in Mecklenburg County. (Roughly 40 percent of us are recyclers.) Critics are incensed that the state passed a bill specifically for ReVenture, enabling the plant to claim more renewable energy credits—currency in the energy industry—than other renewable energy projects, like wind and solar. They worry the legislation will make it more economically attractive than other, safer alternatives. Finally, ReVenture’s critics are concerned about the speed at which the project is moving through our legislative halls, pointing to other states and countries that have banned or delayed incinerators in recent years due most often to environmental and health concerns, including increased instances of asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, and cancer.
It’s a complicated story. On the one side is a developer attempting to seize a business opportunity by developing an innovative “eco-industrial” park. On the other are environmentalists who fear that local government is falling all over itself to allow the development, forsaking prudence for the promise of new jobs and a sexy green-energy hub. And caught in the middle is everyone else, breathing the air, drinking the water, and taking out the trash.
In 2004, Tom McKittrick, who was working in commercial real estate, realized that the Carolinas contain a plenitude of rundown, abandoned industrial sites. He saw an opportunity and started Forsite Development. The company buys aging industrial buildings, often assuming the environmental risks that come with them, then leases them back to the original owners, a move that can save companies money. The idea is to revitalize the site, thereby attracting investors and jobs.
Located near Mount Holly, the proposed ReVenture site is currently owned by the Clariant Corporation. It’s a Superfund site originally contaminated by a dye plant more than eighty years ago. Clariant has spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning the property’s polluted groundwater, which drains into the Catawba River. The 667-acre property is already zoned as an industrial site, comes complete with rail lines, and even has some permits in place. McKittrick says if he doesn’t develop the property, it will “grow up in weeds and rust and rot into the ground.”
In many ways, ReVenture is a dreamy project for a city lusting to lead the country in green-energy innovation, especially if everything goes as planned. It could mean 1,000 new jobs, not including temporary construction jobs. And, once completed, the park is slated to include much more than the controversial twenty-megawatt incinerator. McKittrick knows a bankable trend when he sees one. He’s pitching the project to investors, policymakers, and the general public with the prospect of including a four-megawatt solar field, indoor composting, a facility to convert vehicles for propane fuel usage, office space for renewable energy upstarts and environmental groups, and 185 acres of conserved land, including a several-mile addition to the Carolina Thread Trail, connecting Mount Holly and the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
“It’s an enormous undertaking,” says McKittrick. If the project succeeds, he envisions it expanding to include other eco-minded energy companies. Then, he intends to duplicate it on similar industrial sites that he says are “littered throughout the Southeast.”
Not only is it an innovative business model, it’s another way to get rid of our trash, by burning it to produce electricity, effectively solving two problems of a growing metropolis at once. “If it were to be successful,” says Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, “it could be a great model for other less densely developed areas of the country.”
McKittrick envisions ReVenture Park as an incubator for renewable-energy entrepreneurs, a place where they can mingle and share ideas. He thinks the green-energy movement is a “lasting force, not a fad,” and while he says the prospect of profits first lured him into the industry, he says this project has caused him to evolve into “a practical environmentalist.”
The key to ReVenture’s success is the waste incinerator. Without the incinerator, which is considered ReVenture’s anchor project, McKittrick says the rest of his eco-industrial park will be “much more difficult” to implement. With it in place, and accompanying federal stimulus grants secured, he feels certain that private investors will become more willing to fund other portions of the park.
The type of incinerator that McKittrick wants to use, though it’s not entirely new technology, would be the first of its kind to be used publicly. It hasn’t been tested with Mecklenburg County trash. And it likely would not be until it is operational. That means, until the plant is up and running, we won’t know what pollutants will escape the smokestacks.
If Mecklenburg County agrees to pay ReVenture Park to take our trash, it will first be sorted. Recyclables will be removed and sold, and the remaining trash will be infused with lime and compressed into pellets, called refuse-derived fuel (RDF). Ideally, the lime will bond with pollutants and keep them from flying out the smokestack once the trash is burned. Those pellets will then be fed into the incinerator and heated until gasified. The gas turns turbines that generate electricity. Some of the electricity will be used within the park, and McKittrick is negotiating with an energy company (he hasn’t said which one) to buy the rest. The by-products of the process are smoke and ash. The ash will either end up on agricultural crops or in retention ponds. The smoke will rise out of the smoke stacks after passing through a computerized monitoring system.
McKittrick says he conducted an “exhaustive search” for the technology to use in his incinerator, because he wanted to keep emissions as low as possible. From the time he began developing plans for ReVenture Park, just over a year and a half ago, until December 2, 2010, McKittrick pointed to incineration technology in Europe and Japan. However, the technology he settled on is an untested system designed by ICM Inc. of Colwich, Kansas, an engineering and manufacturing firm. (A German firm will install computerized emission controls.)
McKittrick describes the technology as “the best in class from an emissions-control perspective,” even though there is no emissions data. There are no large-scale incinerators in the United States that generate electricity, so there are no health or environmental impact studies. And the incinerator ICM plans to install near Mount Holly has been tested only as a research-and-development project. If approved, the first implementation and trial of the design—which marries “off the shelf” 100-year-old incineration technology with newer gasification processes—will be in Mecklenburg County.
The Sierra Club is among the most vocal critics of ReVenture’s proposed incinerator. According to the group, garbage should be excluded as an energy source, especially given the potential health risks. It worries that the incinerator will end up burning compostable materials and recyclables, some of which—including plastic or metals—are known to emit serious pollutants, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, mercury, dioxin, and furans. Though he hopes to capture recyclables, in part so he can sell them, McKittrick readily admits it will be impossible to capture all of them. And some forms of plastic, such as the cases around batteries, are not recyclable.
County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts was among a group of citizens and officials who visited Germany’s Mecklenburg region in 1999, and she toured waste incinerator plants while there. “I spent five days in Austria and Germany looking at precisely the kind of technology ReVenture is looking at. I think it’s the kind of thing we really need to encourage,” she said in July, months before McKittrick announced what type of system ReVenture would use. She added, “Do we know the details of every single engineering drawing? No. Do we know the essentials of the technology? Yes.”
For the first five years of operation, ICM will babysit its innovation to ensure everything runs smoothly. If it doesn’t, McKittrick swears he’ll shut down the plant.
All they have are estimates [of emissions] … everyone is scrambling,
and the public isn’t really informed.”
McKittrick’s promises aren’t good enough for area environmentalists, though. “The vendor they’ve chosen has never done this on a commercial scale,” says Shannon Binns of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the city become environmentally and economically sustainable. “All they have are estimates.” He and several other area environmentalists want third-party health- and environmental-impact studies conducted, and they want to see the project slow down so it can be thoroughly vetted by local government officials. He feels like “everyone is scrambling, and the public isn’t really informed.”
Mecklenburg County formed a council of citizens, some of whom work in the waste-management industry—called the ReVenture Advisory Council, or the RAC—to review the site’s plans. The council didn’t know what type of incineration technology would be used until a few weeks before Christmas, a month before it was scheduled to make its recommendation to county commissioners. And while the city’s economic development committee has spent time reviewing the project, its environmental committee has not.
McKittrick has a financial incentive to rush the approval of the project. The ReVenture team has been chasing federal stimulus grants that could reimburse it for up to a third of the incinerator project’s total cost, estimated at $154 million. To qualify, the project originally had to be ready for development by December 31, 2010. Now that Congress has extended the stimulus program, that deadline has been pushed to the end of 2011. Another reason for the rush: the county’s soon-to-expire contract with its current waste-management company, which is up for renewal in June 2012. If ReVenture were to win that contract, it could mean $10 million a year for the development, and once in place, McKittrick is certain that other customers—like apartment complexes and businesses that use privately owned trash-collection services and rarely recycle—will sign similar contracts.
With an incineration plant on the horizon, you’d think the people who live close to the proposed ReVenture Park would have a lot to say about the project. ReVenture representatives, acknowledging that community buy-in is critical, have conducted several community meetings, and they say no one has raised any concerns. Last summer, McKittrick noted that similar projects have failed in the past “because environmental groups weren’t engaged and the community wasn’t involved.”
However, Catherine Mitchell, of Citizens for a Healthy Environment, a nonprofit started in response to concerns about a medical bio-waste incinerator in Matthews, calls ReVenture’s outreach program an illusion and a well-organized public-relations ploy. “I believe that what they’re trying to do is push, push, push to get this thing through before people have a chance to do their homework,” she says. “[McKittrick] doesn’t want any thought to enter anyone’s mind that we should be concerned about anyone’s health and safety.”
As of this writing, the last public meetings were held in January 2010, eleven months before the incinerator technology was announced. Commissioner Roberts says the public still has time to comment on the proposed incinerator: the ReVenture team has scheduled more public meetings, and it’s likely there will be a hearing for the incinerator’s air-quality permit. However, Mitchell of Citizens for a Healthy Environment is concerned that the company will host all of the few meetings on the calendar. The project “has to be thoroughly vetted and assessed from all sides,” she says, “and the so-called expert opinions should not be coming primarily from the PR portion of the project.”
Just before Christmas, I conducted two impromptu town halls. One was at the Cream and Bean, Mount Holly’s only coffee shop, located less than a mile from the proposed site. The second was at a café five miles away. Only two of about twenty-five people had ever heard of the proposed industrial site or the plans for an incinerator. Neither of them was aware of any public meetings.
I talked more extensively with folks at the Cream and Bean. Dan Plummer has lived in Mount Holly for more than two years. “I don’t want that close to my community,” he said about the incinerator.
Michelle Cassada, whose family has lived in Mount Holly for generations, hadn’t heard about ReVenture. “Nothing, nothing at all,” she said. “Of course, I think that’s the point.”
“We haven’t heard anything either,” said Debra “Dee” Barker.
“Not a thing,” echoed her mother, Pat Barker.
Several generations of the Barker family have called Mount Holly home. They own the town’s only boat landing, and Pat’s mother used to work at the dye manufacturing plant that contaminated the groundwater beneath the proposed ReVenture site.
Jody Black, a lifelong resident who works in Uptown, hadn’t heard of ReVenture either, but said, “If it’s going to create jobs, I’m for it. The trash has got to go somewhere. A lot of people around here only have high school educations and they need jobs. I’m not saying build plants and to heck with the environment, though.”
Gerald Burgess, co-owner of the Cream and Bean and an avid news reader, was the only person present that Saturday who had heard of ReVenture, which is just over the river from his shop. Citing layoffs at the nearby Freightliner Truck manufacturing plant and the demise of the textile industry, he reiterated the need for jobs in the area. Further, he doesn’t think the incineration plant will affect the area’s air quality. “With the Clean Air Act, and everything they have now, that ain’t gonna happen,” he said.
The Barkers aren’t opposed to McKittrick’s plans to include an incinerator at ReVenture Park, either, but they, like everyone else at the coffee shop that afternoon, would like to know more. They’d also like to see the technology vetted elsewhere before it’s situated next door to their community.
“They need to test it and let people know what’s what,” said Pat.
“… and then we can weigh our options,” finished Dee. “Why do they want to test it in a populated area? We’re not guinea pigs.”
As the group dispersed, a train with 101 carloads of coal passed by on the tracks in front of the coffee shop, likely headed to one of Duke Energy’s nearby coal plants—a reminder of how most of the area’s energy is produced. Compared to burning coal, trash incineration should emit less sulfur dioxide, but more carbon dioxide. However, since ICM’s technology hasn’t been tried before, and certainly not with Mecklenburg’s trash—a waste stream that’s constantly changing—no one really knows for sure.
Freelance journalist Rhiannon Bowman writes often about environmental topics for this magazine and other publications. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org