Rachel's Democracy & Health News #877, October 19, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Garbage incinerators are trying to make a comeback, claiming that garbage is a renewable resource, and that energy from garbage will free us from entanglements in the Middle East. None of it is true.]

By Peter Montague

Cheap waste disposal prevents us from making progress against pollution.

So long as waste disposal remains cheap, corporations and governments have little incentive to recycle, re-use, compost, or avoid making waste in the first place.

If disposal is cheap, there is no compelling reason to invest in green chemistry, clean production, alternative energy, green building, or cradle-to-cradle manufacturing.

Cheap disposal = landfills and incinerators. Let's talk incinerators.

Garbage incinerators are making a big comeback in the U.S. -- or trying to. The City of Los Angeles, California is thinking about building seven of them. There may be as many as 40 (or more) proposed incinerators of one kind or another in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the lower 48. All of them promise to take mixed municipal waste and heat it up to reduce the volume of garbage and extract small amounts of useful energy in the process.

Heating mixed waste (garbage) creates toxic air emissions and the toxicant-containing residual -- whether ash or a rock-like "clinker" -- will be buried in the ground where it remains available forever, threatening groundwater.

These new incinerators are never called "incinerators" -- they go by names like pyrolysis or gasification plants, or plasma arc melters, or simply "conversion" machines. But they all propose to heat mixed waste, extract some energy, and bury the leftovers in the ground.

Rarely does anyone ask, "How much energy will it take to start from scratch and re-create all the goods destroyed by the incinerator?" No one asks because the answer reveals that incinerators are huge energy- wasters, not energy-savers. As Monica Wilson of GAIA says (quoting Paul Connett), "Even if you could make an incinerator safe, you couldn't make one sensible."

Two things seem to be driving the incinerator resurgence:

(a) the recent glimmer of recognition in Washington that dependence on oil is a bad for the planet and especially bad for the U.S.; and

(b) a federal law that requires electric utilities to buy any electricity produced by incinerators.

For political reasons, incinerators have always been attractive to some local officials. Take the proposal being pushed right now in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Cecil D. Davis IV is running for City Council. Mr. Davis is proposing to move 500 mostly-black families out of their homes in south Brooksville to replace them with an incinerator, which he promises will be built in record time if he gets elected. The up-front costs to taxpayers will be $500 million.

Local governments rarely get a chance to play around with a huge sum like $500 million of other people's money. All the political insiders get to scoop off their own little slice of this huge pie -- lawyers, bankers, engineers, environmental consultants, construction firms, labor leaders, regulatory experts, realtors, lobbyists, and all manner of other hangers-on will get a change to snag their own tenth-of-a- percent and make a bundle. (A tenth of a percent of $500 million is $500 thousand.)

Furthermore, all the money will be sloshing around during the short planning and construction phase. After the machine is built, and the profits have been taken, the builders and their friends can retire into the woodwork and disappear, leaving the taxpayers and future City Councils to deal with mounting problems for the next 30 years or more.

And the problems are substantial. We searched a national database of newspapers for incinerator stories that were published during the first three weeks of October, 2006, and here are some of the problems being reported:

** In Akron, Ohio a company called Akron Thermal owes the city $5 million in unpaid sewer and water bills, $845,000 in unpaid rent, and $80,000 in unpaid franchise fees. Akron Thermal also owes the state of Ohio $3.2 million in unpaid excise taxes, and it owes Summit County about $300,000 in unpaid public utility personal property tax.

Akron Thermal no longer burns garbage because the plant suffered a serious explosion in 1984, killing 3 workers, when a New Jersey firm sent some illegal garbage to the plant. A decade a later, a scam to avoid paying plant fees resulted in the arrest of a dozen waste haulers and plant employees, costing the city $500,000. Now the plant burns wood chips and low-sulphur coal because local businesses are dependent on the steam from the plant for heat.

** In Passaic County, New Jersey a waste hauler is suing the local utility authority for $3.5 million it says the county owes. The County says the finances of its incinerator are so shakey it can't afford to pay its debts. This situation developed after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that New Jersey waste producers could ship their wastes out of county (indeed, out of state) instead of sending them to the expensive Passaic incinerator. This legal decision in 1997 threw the incinerator's business plan into a cocked hat. Anyone thinking about building an incinerator today should think twice -- changing laws and regulations can cause bankruptcy overnight.

** Biddeford, Maine has spent over two years negotiating with the Maine Energy Recovery Company, trying to settle lawsuits, disputes over tax abatements, and disagreements over the assessed value of the incinerator. Residents of Biddeford have complained about odors from the plant since it opened in 1987. Reportedly the new agreement between Biddeford and the incinerator operator imposes financial penalties on the city if it ever sues the incinerator operator, and opens the incinerator to a new class of waste -- construction and demolition debris. In other locales, construction and demolition debris is being recycled and re-used, not destroyed by incineration. Suits between incinerator companies and governments are common, so Biddeford may be getting itself into a weak position by agreeing to pay penalties if it ever has to sue.

** In Georgia, politics has raised its venal head in the state legislature, where the waste industry is lobbying to gut the state's sunshine laws. A Republican proposal would cloak local economic development decisions -- including the decision to build incinerators -- in secrecy until after the deal is done. Specifically, the proposed law "would allow unelected boards to provide incentives for to provide incentives for companies to build incinerators, waste disposal sites or other job-creating businesses without having to disclose them publicly until after the deal had been negotiated," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

** In Peekskill, New York the city tried to charge waste haulers a special fee for damage and pollution caused by 3000 trucks per year delivering garbage to the RESCO incinerator. The city claimed that the incinerator degraded city streets and dripped noxious pollution into the community from leaky, overfilled trucks. A judge struck down the Peekskill law as unconstitutional.

** The contribution of now-defunct incinerators to soil and water contamination is the subject of specific, multi-million dollar investigations in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and Ohio. And remember, this is just a review of news stories during a one-month period, October, 2006 (and the month isn't over yet).

** Federal oversight of incinerators is reportedly less than thorough -- even in the case of the most dangerous machines, those that burn hazardous wastes. After the Sierra Club and the American Bottom Conservancy sued to force EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to enforce the law, U.S. EPA demanded that the Onyx Incinerator in Sauget, Illinois apply for a permit to operate. Onyx operated for years without a permit. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the incinerator had been fined repeatedly by state authorities for uncontrolled releases, accidents, and fires.

** In Texas, the incinerator industry has lobbied for the past three legislative sessions to try to get municipal garbage defined as a "renewable energy source." So far the effort has failed, but it is crystal clear that this redefinition is a main strategy of the garbage industry.

Think about that. If garbage were defined as a "renewable energy resource," garbage incinerators would naturally become an official part of the nation's renewable energy strategy. This will be good for incinerator companies but bad for everyone else.

Burning garbage wastes huge amounts of energy because everything destroyed in an incinerator must be re-created from scratch starting with the mining and logging of virgin materials, transportation, processing, more transportation, and manufacture -- all accompanied by massive pollution and waste.

There can only be an endless supply of garbage if the U.S. maintains its wasteful lifestyle. When we get around to adopting a precautionary waste philosophy (zero waste), garbage will diminish dramatically. Incinerator companies that need garbage to feed their machines will oppose sensible solid waste policies by hook and by crook. We must therefore once again mount a serious campaign against them and their wasteful machines.


Our thanks to Monica Wilson and Annie Leonard of GAIA for recent informative interviews about the resurgence of incineration in the U.S.