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Burning waste is an unhealthy idea


As reported in the Jan. 7 Tribune, the Metro Council is considering sending “one-fifth of the tricounty area’s trash, about 200,000 tons a year,” to the Covanta Marion waste-to-energy incinerator in Brooks as one of its combination of three options for dealing with the region’s waste when current contracts expire in 2019.

The other options are the continued use of landfills, and the development of Advanced Materials Recovery facilities.

Metro’s proposal flies in the face of widespread and growing consensus by the citizens it represents that we urgently need to move from being a high-carbon society based upon dirty fossil fuels and high levels of extraction, waste, pollution and global warming gases ... to a low-carbon society based upon clean forms of energy, equity, health and low levels of waste, pollution and global warming emissions.

It’s exactly these changes that our Climate Action Plan, our policies moving away from fossil fuels, and our policies promoting sustainability throughout our communities are designed to achieve.

Metro is promoting waste-to-energy incineration, in part, because it produces electricity. But this is electricity created by burning materials using an outdated and expensive technology that squanders the energy and resources embodied in the materials during their lifecycle, pollutes the environment, releases global warming gases, and slows and undermines the transition to clean, renewable, low-carbon sources of electricity.

Most, if not all, citizens and officials in the Metro region advocate moving away from coal-generated electricity as rapidly as possible because of the pollution, environmental destruction, health impairment, and global warming emissions coal produces. Yet, based upon U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, waste-to-energy incinerators produce even more pollution and global warming emissions per unit of electricity produced than coal-fired power plants.

The Energy Justice Network reports that “to make the same amount of energy as a coal power plant, trash incinerators release 28 times as much dioxin than coal, 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide, twice as much carbon monoxide, three times as much nitrogen oxides, six to 14 times as much mercury, nearly six times as much lead, and 70 percent more sulfur dioxides.”

Why would Metro promote and perpetuate a technology that is even more dirty than coal per unit of electricity produced, and a technology that is totally inconsistent with the values and policies championed by the citizens and communities it represents?

Metro also is promoting incineration to reduce the volume of waste. While incineration reduces volume, it doesn’t destroy waste. What incineration really does is to change the form of the waste, increasing the availability and/or toxicity of many of the pollutants it contains, and then releasing these pollutants as either air emissions, wastewater emissons, or incinerator ash. For every four tons of waste burned, at least one ton of ash is created. Ten percent of this ash is the highly toxic fly ash from the incinerator’s air pollution controls. Covanta Marion’s incinerator ash is sent to Coffin Butte Landfill north of Corvallis and used as daily cover.

Metro says its proposal to send one-fifth of the region’s waste to Covanta Marion will require doubling the size of the plant. Marion County officials and Covanta have long sought expanded incineration capacity, and would welcome such an outcome.

Expanding Covanta Marion will undermine the intent of Oregon’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), the requirement that Oregon’s largest utilities “provide 25 percent of their retail sales of electricity from newer, clean, renewable sources of energy by 2025.”

Covanta and industry lobbyists are doing their best at state and federal levels to get all or some of the waste burned at waste-to-energy plants designated as producing “renewable energy.” To the extent that they are successful, incinerator corporations and investors will have incentives to invest in additional incineration capacity to meet the RPS, rather than electricity produced by clean solar, wind or other truly renewable, low carbon sources of energy.

Many caveats must be applied in evaluating claims that an incinerator is in compliance with state and federal regulations. One exceptionally important caveat is the fact that the most health impairing and deadly forms of particulate air pollution — nano-size ultrafines (1/1000th to 1/100,000th the width of a human hair) — are neither regulated nor measured, but yet are released in vast quantities by incinerators.

Metro should focus on continued improvement of its excellent waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting programs, and its current emphasis on getting food scraps out of the waste. No one likes landfills, or the air emissions produced by them or by transporting waste to them, but the way to reduce both is to reduce our total waste as well as food scraps waste.

Joe Miller is a member of the Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and previously served on its board of directors. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.