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Metro agrees to enter talks with operator of region's garbage incinerator

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COURTESY COVANTA - Covanta hopes to double the size of its garbage incinerator north of Salem, if Metro agrees to send about one-fifth of the area's trash there to turn into electricity. After a months-long effort to engage the region in “talking about trash,” Metro is shifting to formally evaluate two ways to reduce garbage sent to the landfill: burning it to produce electricity and filtering out more recyclables after garbage is collected.

On Tuesday, the Metro Council directed the regional government’s staff to open formal talks with Covanta, the operator of a garbage incinerator in Marion County, to discuss sending one-fifth of the region’s garbage there to be burned and converted to electricity. Though Metro’s elected leaders still have serious concerns about the health and environmental risks of burning garbage, councilors want a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of the idea, which figures to take a year or two.

Councilors also directed Metro staff to continue studying a method of extracting more recyclables from garbage after it’s collected, a process known as Advanced Materials Recovery.

“We’re narrowing our options here; we’re not asking you to choose an option,” said Paul Ehinger, Metro’s director of solid waste operations.

Metro’s contract to send most of the region’s trash to a landfill in Eastern Oregon expires in four years, so it’s undergoing a thorough review of alternatives.

As Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick said Tuesday, Metro would be remiss if it didn’t conduct its “due diligence” to evaluate new Advanced Materials Recovery methods. San Jose, Calif., offers the best example of the new technology, but Metro solid waste experts said it may not work as well here for several reasons. The Portland area already has a robust curbside recycling program, and Metro councilors want to keep improving that rather than create a costly new system that may duplicate that effort.

About one-fifth of the region’s garbage, or 200,000 tons a year of plastics, paper and other recyclable materials, could be extracted from garbage on conveyor belts, said Rob Smoot, Metro’s senior engineer. However, that is very labor-intensive and the equipment is relatively expensive. The process also might have to be done at garbage transfer centers where haulers bring the region’s garbage, and there are six of them spread throughout the metro area.

San Jose has more centralized control of garbage, while Metro oversees a network involving 28 cities that each control their garbage collection, and a mix of public and private operators.

Still, Metro envisions studying the Advanced Materials Recovery idea for another 12 to 18 months.

Sending garbage to Covanta’s facility in Brooks, four miles north of Salem, seems to have more political momentum, though it’s highly controversial because of the health and environmental concerns.

Though Metro received four expressions of interest from companies about burning the region’s garbage, Metro councilors agreed it makes sense to engage in talks with just Covanta, which has the only facility in the area.

Covanta has a long track record, and offers a facility only 30 to 40 miles from where much of the region’s trash is collected, considerably closer than the Arlington landfill that is 140 miles away in Eastern Oregon.

It’s the most “cost-effective, low-risk opportunity” for garbage burning, Smoot said. Covanta already wants to expand its facility, and wouldn’t need any money from Metro to finance that, Smoot said. Covanta would only require a guarantee that Metro send about one-fifth of the region’s garbage there, to assure it has a steady supply to burn, in turn guaranteeing a certain amount of electricity produced for PGE.

In addition, Metro could get hard data about the health and environmental impacts from Covanta's existing operations.

Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, noting concerns expressed by Joe Miller of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, cited the need to thoroughly evaluate the health impacts of microscopic fibers emitted from Covanta’s smokestack, as well as toxic materials in the ash left over from combustion. Miller has said the process produces more greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal, and Stacey said Metro would need to explain to the public why there may be environmental advantages to burning trash rather than trucking it to landfills.

Metro staff note that a Solid Waste Hierarchy adopted into state law shows that the most desirable methods of handling trash, in order of priority, are to reduce it, then reuse it, and then recycle and compost it. At the bottom of the hierarchy, the least desirable methods, are turning trash into energy and then disposing of it in landfills.

Metro Councilor Sam Chase suggested that the landfill option may in fact be a better idea environmentally than burning trash, given the air emissions and ash concerns.

As Stacy noted, there’s little scientific data about the health impacts of the micro fibers, which can be as small as 100,000th the size of a human hair. They're also not currently regulated by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen seemed the most skeptical about garbage burning.

“I guess I would question as to whether that’s the best idea,” Dirksen said.

There is plenty of space for the region’s trash in landfills now, he said, so perhaps Metro should put off the idea of burning garbage until more is known about the health and environmental hazards of garbage burning, or there are advances in technology.

But he joined other Metro councilors in directing staff to proceed with more research on the two alternatives.

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