Metro's plans to burn much of the Portland-area's garbage at an incinerator in Marion County appears headed for the trash heap.
After reviewing a 211-page Health Impact Assessment commissioned by Metro, the regional government's staff now recommends that the project be tabled.
"We came to the conclusion that we just weren't seeing the benefit from greenhouse gas emissions to justify the cost," said Ken Ray, a Metro spokesman who works on solid waste issues.
The elected Metro Council will consider the staff recommendation at an Aug. 8 work session.
But voting to burn the Metro area's garbage to convert it to electricity was always going to be tough politically for Metro councilors to swallow, given major opposition from health and environmental advocates and Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Even the company Covanta, whose garbage incinerator north of Salem would have been doubled in size to handle the new volume, seems to accept this deal is dead.
"Whenever your staff … are suggesting you shouldn't go forward, you'd be hard-pressed as an elected official to go against the staff analysis," said Paul Gilman, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for the New Jersey-based company.
If the Metro Council does decide to proceed, Ray said, the agency's staff recommended more research is needed on health and environmental impacts. That's likely to take two years and to cost $500,000.
Doing its homework
Metro's contract to truck most of the Portland area's garbage to the Arlington landfill, 140 miles to the east, expires in 2019. As that date nears, the agency is exploring a variety of options to reduce the amount of trash sent to Arlington.
Metro commissioned HDR Engineering to prepare a Health Impact Assessment that compared the health and environmental merits of sending 200,000 tons of garbage per year to Covanta's waste-to-energy incinerator in Brooks, north of Salem, versus burying it in a landfill. The report found few health or environmental concerns from either option, though many critics remain skeptical. One of the biggest unanswered questions: the heath impacts of burning medical waste, plastics and other materials, releasing dioxins and other toxins into the air, plus ultrafine particulate matter that is so small that when inhaled it goes directly into humans' bloodstream.
But Metro's staff recommendation came down to a simple cost-benefit analysis.
"Landfills are always going to be the least expensive options," Ray said.
Landfilling costs about $25 per ton, Ray said, and burning garbage in Brooks was estimated to cost $60 to $80 per ton.
If Metro pays $60 per ton to send garbage to Brooks, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality senior policy analyst David Alloway calculated, it would by paying $35 per ton more to reduce carbon emissions by .345 ton. That translates to spending $101.45 to eliminate 1 ton of greenhouse gas, he said.
That's not an "outrageous" price, Alloway said. Even still, he remarked, "It's a pretty expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Some would presume that garbage burning, which produces more renewable energy, would score much higher on environmental factors, particularly carbon emissions that contribute to climate change and global warming.
Rotting garbage in landfills emits a significant amount of methane, which is at least 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, trucking waste so far from Portland — the drive to Arlington is about a five-hour round trip — produces significant diesel exhaust and other carbon emissions.
However, one of two models cited in HDR Engineering's study actually found that burying the garbage in a landfill would produce fewer carbon emissions. That's because landfills, comparable to forests, store significant amounts of carbon rather than emit it into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.
State analysts concluded there are far better ways to spend money to achieve better results for addressing climate change in a 2014 study.
"There's a pretty significant cost premium to send garbage to Brooks instead of sending it to the landfill," noted Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. The state commission has recommended that Oregon seek the most cost-effective and least-disruptive ways first.
Right now, Duncan said, the commission is focused on helping Oregon utilities shift away from coal and natural gas to zero-emission solar and wind power, and to reduce emissions from transportation.
Europe and the East Coast, where garbage burners are more common, have a shortage of land to site landfills and have much higher electricity prices than Oregon, Ray said. Here, he said, "There are not the urgent drivers that drive you to waste-to-energy."
Gilman said the expansion of the Brooks incinerator isn't dead, because Marion County is exploring adding more garbage to send to Brooks, and there's a trend among municipalities of voting to divert garbage from landfills.
But for the foreseeable future, it doesn't appear Portland-area trash is headed to the garbage burner.