Most of us don't pay much attention to where our garbage goes after it is picked up.
But if you live in Marion County (Oregon), you should. Because the end point of our trash gets burned up by an incinerator owned and operated by Covanta, a multi-billion dollar company that's trying to get the Oregon legislature to give it renewable energy tax credits.
Yes, for burning garbage. Who knew that garbage was a renewable resource? (It isn't -- that's why hardly anybody but Covanta favors bestowing taxpayer money on the incinerator in Brooks, north of Salem.)
On February 21, a week ago today, the Salem City Club made a big mistake. Instead of allowing both proponents and opponents of the garbage burner to have their say, the City Club decided to only let Marion County representatives speak -- both of whom spouted Covanta propaganda shamelessly since the county contracts with Covanta.
I wrote about this travesty in "Marion County officials are clueless about profit margin of garbage incinerator." This was only one of many WTF? moments at the City Club program.
Fortunately, the Clean Air Now Coalition put together a well-written, factual, nicely documented rebuttal of the Covanta/Marion County propaganda that I painfully had to listen to for over an hour, being a Salem City Club member who usually enjoys the programs, this one being a notable exception.
Below is what the Clear Air Now Coalition said.
I've added some paragraph breaks to make the rebuttal easier to read, and inserted links to several PDF files included with the coalition's report. It's must-reading for anyone who cares about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Marion County, and protecting people from the harmful chemicals emitted by the garbage burner.
There are members of the Clean Air Now Coalition who want to take exception to much of the presentation made by Marion County staff to the Salem City Club on February 21, 2020. The presenters may simply be otherwise well-meaning targets of Covanta propaganda, but that resulted in elements of distraction and misdirection that seemed similar to what one might observe in a magic act.
In one example of misdirection (“Hey, look over there!”) the audience was basically given two waste management paths from which to choose:
1) the waste incinerator, which was presented as having a few tolerable flaws, versus
2) landfills that produce methane, take up farmland, and potentially pollute ground water.
The sustainable option of waste prevention and waste reduction was presented as a supplement to incineration and landfilling rather than a completely separate option from either the incinerator or methane-producing landfills.
This sustainable option should be seen as a separate option all on its own and be pursued diligently until Marion County over a period of years reaches at least a 90% diversion of its waste stream through waste prevention, reuse, repair, recycling, and composting. What remains can be landfilled (in less space than that currently used each year by incinerator ash) with the methane-producing organic matter diverted to composting.
Also, the incineration of waste at the Covanta Marion incinerator is the antithesis of waste reduction because Marion County's contract with Covanta requires that the County provide enough waste to fully fuel the incinerator.
If that obligation is not met, the County is penalized. Thus, at such time that a waste reduction program became successful enough to reduce the waste stream below that required incinerator fuel level, the County would begin being penalized for further waste reduction.
We want to point out that toxic emissions from the incinerator are NOT monitored continuously, as Mr. Nicholas incorrectly said initially.
Toxic heavy metals, extremely toxic dioxins, and hydrogen chloride are only measured annually with samples taken during three pre-announced runs during a testing period of a few days by a contractor of Covanta’s choosing. Numerous other toxins known to be emitted by solid waste incinerators are not measured at all.
During the question and answer period of the City Club program the presenters partially corrected themselves but implied that the few gases that are monitored continuously (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide) serve as “indicators“ for all of the other things that are not monitored continuously. We strongly take issue with that contention.
If somehow a large batch of lead or cadmium entered the waste stream, for example, they would certainly increase the emissions of those toxins; but the magnitude of that increase would not be detectable by monitoring the few gases that are part of the continuous emissions monitoring system. Only by continuous monitoring of the toxins themselves (as is done in many European incinerators) would a reasonably accurate measure be taken.
In addition to the problem of infrequent testing for toxins, there is also a flaw in the timing of testing for toxins such as dioxin. The incinerator’s air quality permit specifies that measurements may only be taken during optimal operating conditions. It has been demonstrated in a European study that the production of dioxins can increase 30 to 50 times during malfunctions, startup, and shutdown as compared to their production during optimal operating conditions.
The presenters pointed out how the Covanta Marion incinerator overwhelmingly meets the emissions limits set by the current air quality permit. However, the following things that they did not point out are very important: This incinerator burns over 11,000 tons of medical waste per year (with about 10,000 tons of that coming from out of state). That is over five times the amount of medical waste that a large medical waste incinerator would have to burn in order to qualify for a much stricter set of emissions limits.
The Covanta Marion incinerator’s emissions of acid gases and heavy metals exceeded these stricter emission limits consistently and extensively during the past seven years for which we have data. In spite of the fact that they conceivably burn more medical waste then some actual large medical waste incinerators, they are held to much more lax emission standards than large medical waste incinerators just because they are called a “municipal solid waste incinerator."
This inconsistency created by EPA (with possible corporate and political influence in our opinion) does not make logical sense at all. The toxins the Covanta Marion incinerator emits are no less harmful than if they had been emitted from an incinerator officially called a “large medical waste incinerator." A table showing these emission comparisons, with figures provided by the Oregon DEQ, is attached.
Another example of distraction during the presentation was the statement that the greenhouse gas emitted by the incinerator represents only a small fraction of the greenhouse gas from other sources, such as transportation and production of electricity.
We would compare that to the “murderer versus mass murderer“ defense argument. In this scenario the murderer says, “You should set me free because I only murdered one person in cold blood, whereas that person over there murdered 50 people.” It is estimated that this incinerator produces greenhouse gas each year equivalent to the annual production of greenhouse gas by about 34,000 automobiles.
It is also ironic that the presenters would include the production of electricity in their comparison of the relative amounts of greenhouse gases coming from various sources. It is estimated that electricity created by waste incineration produces approximately 2.5 times as much greenhouse gas per unit of electricity as a coal fired power plant. See this link: http://www.energyjustice.net/incineration/climate
The presenters showed a graph that they stated multiple times was produced by the incinerator industry and not by them. It purported to show that waste incineration is a net reducer of greenhouse gases because it helps “avoid“ other sources of greenhouse gas, such as fossil fuel electricity generation and smelting of metal ores.
That claim regarding the 19th greatest industrial producer of greenhouse gas in Oregon per a report from the Oregon DEQ is not only ludicrous on the face of it (which is probably why the presenters took pains to ensure we understood it was not their graph); it does not stand up to critical analysis. Please see the same link as presented in the preceding paragraph to read more about that analysis.
The presenters also presented graphics that seemed to show that the incinerator is not known to cause harm to environmental justice populations (minorities, disadvantaged, etc.). Yet in our own analysis for the area which incinerator emissions could be expected to reach, we found that “according to the US EPA, the neighborhoods within a 7-mile radius around the Covanta waste incineration facility are in the 88th percentile for cancer and respiratory risks (using National Air Toxics Assessment data).
Furthermore the US EPA lists the area’s demographics indicators for minority (86th percentile), low-income (70th percentile) and linguistically isolated populations (88th percentile) for an overall Demographic Index in the 83rd percentile compared to other areas in Oregon. The bottom line is that environmental justice populations are at risk from the incinerator's emissions.
We have also attached to this message a waste reduction sample plan for Marion County and a copy of the "Healthy and Sustainable Waste Management" handout that was available on the registration table at the February 21 City Club program.
There are no doubt other points to be made about the February 21 presentation, but we will stop here and allow you to reach your own conclusions.
Clean Air Now Coalition