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Burnt offerings: Local plant turning waste into sidewalks

Burnt offerings: Local plant turning waste into sidewalks

Tulsa World Editorial

By WAYNE GREENE World Editorial Writer
Published: 6/28/2009  2:19 AM
Last Modified: 6/28/2009  3:50 AM

Out on the edge of Tulsa, recycling is getting pretty hot — 3,400 degrees Fahrenheit to be precise.

At the Rogers County plant for Lafarge North America they're burning all sorts of waste and making money in the process.

Lafarge's business is cooking cement. Here's how their recipe starts: Take calcium, silica, iron, alumina and a few other spices and make it really, really hot.

Hotter than the lava in a Hawaiian volcano.

I won't give you the rest of that story because I don't want anyone trying to make this stuff in a microwave.

The plant uses two 425-foot revolving kilns in its own culinary efforts. An industrial hot plate like that obviously burns a bunch of fuel.

Plant Manager Jim Bachmann says electricity and fuel — mostly coal — make up about 60 percent of his costs of operations.

So, to make his plant more profitable Bachmann is constantly looking for ways to cut the amount of fuel he has to pay for, and the company has found an intriguing method — using fuel someone else will pay them to burn, recyclable waste.

At the top of every rotation of that really hot revolving kiln, Lafarge tosses in an old tire. By the time the kiln has revolved back around, roughly 45 seconds, the tire is completely gone. The oil in the synthetic rubber has burned away as fuel — accounting for about 16 percent of the plant's fuel — and the steel belts have upped the metal content of the factory's cement.

"I like
to say we turn tires into sidewalks," Bachmann said.

Tires are an enormous waste problem in the state. We use up about 3.5 million of them a year. You can't landfill them whole, and grinding them up is more difficult and expensive than you might imagine. Every time you buy a new tire for your car, you pay a $1 fee to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which uses the money to pay recyclers to take away the old tire and to clean up the illegal tire dumps around the state. The Lafarge Tulsa Plant recycles about 750,000 tires a year.

When you burn a tire at 3,400 degrees, there's not a lot of waste that survives to go up the Lafarge chimneys. By comparison, Tulsa's trash-to-energy plant burns at 1,600 degrees.

Oklahoma ends up with less pollution, and Lafarge ends up with lower costs.

Bachmann calls it "industrial ecology" and his plant is taking another step in that direction.

The company dedicated a new pipeline connecting it to a nearby landfill, where a lot of Tulsa's garbage ends up every day.

That garbage piles up in an area until the landfill caps it. When the waste decays it produces methane, which the landfill collects in pipes and burns in the atmosphere.

That keeps the dump from exploding, but it's ecologically ridiculous. We're burying trash, producing fuel with it and using that fuel to heat the atmosphere.

"It's truly waste from waste," said Metropolitan Environmental Trust Executive Director Michael Patton.

The pipeline fixes that. It will take the methane to Lafarge, where it will go into the cement kiln. Oklahoma gets less pollution, and Lafarge ends up with lower costs.

Could we burn more of our environmental problems up at Lafarge?

Could Bachmann's plant handle the piles of mining wastes at Tar Creek or the heaps of chicken litter that are fouling our state's waterways?

Probably not. The heavy metals in the mine waste make it a bad choice and the chicken waste is more expensive to transport than it is valuable to burn, he said.

But the company is pursuing a plan to use liquid industrial wastes — Fuel Quality Wastes or FQW in the jargon of the industry — from heavy manufacturers.

A Lafarge subsidiary in Kansas takes acceptable wastes — no sewage, medical waste or radioactive material, please — then blends and homogenizes them for cement-making. Using FQW, Lafarge has been able to fuel some of its plants completely with alternative fuels — no fossil fuels, all waste fuels.

"It's a huge swing," said Bachmann. "We can do that in Oklahoma if we can get permitted to do industrial wastes."

The company is at the very beginning of the one- to two-year process of getting a state permit to use the industrial wastes. The company has held a public hearing on the issue in Owasso, Bachmann said.

Skylar McElhaney, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, said the company hasn't filed applications for either of the two permits that would been needed for the change, but has had preliminary discussions with ODEQ staff.

Typically, that sort of waste currently is going to injection wells where it is be buried far underground, hopefully never to reappear.

As with tires and landfill methane, the goal is lower costs for Lafarge, and those of us who pay taxes to build concrete arenas and streets can fall in love with the idea of spending as much of that money as possible in the local economy.

But the by-product that we all should be excited about is a cleaner Earth.

We live in a society that is going to use cement. We can make that cement using fossil fuels at a higher cost, or we can make it from industrial wastes and support the local economy. Seems like an easy choice to me.

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