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http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/florida/orl-asecmulch06050605may06,0,279521.story?coll=sfla-news-florida

From Orlando Sentinel

Italy makes mulch ado about our tree debris

Nearly 120,000 tons will ship from Port Canaveral to fuel that nation's electric plants.

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By Kevin Spear
Sentinel Staff Writer

May 6, 2005

Thousands of trees that had shaded Orlando homes and neighborhoods until they were knocked down by last year's hurricanes have found new life: lighting Italian homes and neighborhoods.

Nearly 120,000 tons of mulched tree debris from Orlando and Orange County has been trucked to Port Canaveral, where a ship has taken on two loads headed for electric plants in southern Italy.

"The material from Florida is not the best," said Angelo Alimonti, a buyer of environmentally friendly fuels in Cremona, Italy. "Too much sand. But that's OK. We can handle it."

For a time last year, tree debris left in the wake of hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne seemed like a permanent and increasingly stinky fixture. Piles of mulched trunks and limbs loomed as some of the area's highest peaks.

Landfills took a lot of tree remains but didn't want to get stuffed with it. Lumber manufacturers couldn't profit from shattered trees. Mulch sellers had more than they wanted. Mobile incinerators couldn't burn it fast enough.

So one of the contractors hired by Orlando and Orange County to take away tree debris -- for about $30 a cubic yard -- looked elsewhere to dispose of mulch.

Crowder-Gulf Disaster Recovery and Debris Management of Alabama, working for Orlando and Orange County, tapped a growing industry that fires electric generators with practically any kind of plant material.

Such fuels -- including rice husks and olive husks, coconut shells and fast-growing grasses -- are called "biomass" and are seen as one option for slowing global warming. Unlike coal and oil, they don't add to pollution blamed for rising temperatures and melting polar ice shelves.

Relatively few power plants in the United States burn biomass, but not the stuff as shaggy and dirty as the mulch piles left from the hurricanes, said local Crowder-Gulf project manager Dickie Joe Ladner.

Some of the mulch was trucked to a power plant in Polk County and one in South Florida. But the hungriest customer is on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean more than 5,000 miles away.

"We're just a little behind in the U.S.," Ladner said, explaining why his company turned to an Italian utility. "Their plant is designed to use that grade of fuel."

Nearly 40,000 tons of mulch is still at a Port Canaveral dock.

Even amid an industrial landscape of oil tanks, gravel hills and stacked lumber, the pile of tree remains rises impressively to at least 30 feet.

Not the kind of mulch that comes in bags, the pile is made of footlong root chunks, rock-hard oak fragments the size of a fist and pine slivers, all mixed with a ragged fiber that looks like a shredded sweater.

"There's probably not quite a shipload here yet, but there will be," said Don Fry, warehouse manager for Mid-Florida Freezers, where in several weeks the mulch will be dumped by a conveyor belt into a 600-foot bulk carrier for the third and final delivery to Italy.

The hurricane mess has been all but removed, but Crowder-Gulf is still sending small amounts of mulch to the site from ongoing tree trimming in Central Florida. Neither the Alabama contractor nor the Italian buyer would disclose the terms of their deal.

All told, haulers from C&W Trucking in Winter Garden have made nearly 2,000 trips to Port Canaveral.

Joe Siry, a Rollins College professor of environmental studies, questioned whether the ecological benefit of burning mulch in Italy is outweighed by truck and boat exhaust to get it there.

"You've got to think of all the fossil fuels used," Siry said.

Still, tree debris regarded as little more than a smelly eyesore will run two medium-sized power plants in the Calabria region of southern Italy for nearly two months.

Kevin Spear can be reachedat kspear@orlandosentinel.comor 407-420-5062.

Copyright © 2005, Orlando Sentinel