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Health Threat May Keep Incinerators from Turning Trash to Power

New incinerators appeal to cities looking to get rid of garbage and produce renewable power. But local leaders find it tough to weigh sparse evidence on health threats against public opposition
landfill


A landfill in Henrico County, Va. Some cities see waste incineration as a solution for the twin problems of garbage and energy. But sparse health information and vocal protests have stalled or killed every proposal to date.
Credit: Bill McChesney via Flickr

When a developer abruptly dropped plans for a waste-incineration plant in North Las Vegas, a few hundred residents fighting the plans saw victory – the end of a contentious, if short-lived, proposal.

But for organizer Christie Linert it was only the beginning. The city's handling of the proposal left her concerned that her community, or others across the county, could be blindsided by similar projects in the future. Indeed, North Las Vegas is far from the first to be caught off-guard by high-tech incinerator proposals in recent years.

Short on landfill space and keen to find novel ways of generating electricity, cities nationwide have begun considering a new wave of incinerator plants designed to be cleaner and more efficient then their predecessors. Yet the technologies remain largely unproven, and many cities have been unable to navigate both public opinion and the complex issues surrounding their potential emissions and energy production. 

No definitive data
Due to a lack of definitive data, cities faced with proposals to build plants using these new technologies often take developers' claims at face value, said Monica Wilson of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance. Still, none of the more than 100 such proposals to surface nationwide in the last seven years has succeeded.

In North Las Vegas, Florida-based EnviroPower Renewable proposed building an incinerator that could generate up to 48 megawatts by burning 1,000 tons of tires and construction waste per day in an industrial area adjacent to a planned school and existing residential neighborhood.

The plan alarmed residents near the site and citywide, who organized to oppose it. But Linert became particularly concerned when city officials told about 50 community members at a March meeting that they assumed no responsibility for evaluating EnviroPower or its technology, despite the fact that the gasification plant would have been the company's first.

"The only thing our council said, and our mayor, is that it is not their job to look into the background of the company, and it's not their job to find out any information about the technology," said Linert. "It's a little scary."

'One part of the process'
Councilmember Isaac Barron, in whose district the incinerator was to be built, said in an interview that the city does not perform background checks on proposals or individuals. It evaluates all projects based on adherence to city codes and ordinances.

"Just because someone gets an OK to continue, that doesn't mean they'll have the project come to fruition," said Barron. "They still have to meet all the EPA requirements, all the county and state requirements. We're only one part of the process." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates both new and old incineration technologies.

Barron said that North Las Vegas' passive stance and the project's derailment over residents' opposition are signs of a successful public process. "We always welcome when people get involved in the government, and this is part of it, quite frankly," he said. 

Trash to ash
The new incinerators use technologies known as gasification, plasma arc, and pyrolysis. The plants use heat to convert trash into ash and syngas in an oxygen-controlled environment. Syngas, composed mainly of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, is then burned in gas turbines to produce electricity, or converted to ethanol with the aid of a catalyst. Like older incinerators, they have the potential to release dioxins, particulates, heavy metals, and acid gases. The new plants are touted as cleaner and more energy efficient, but net energy production can be difficult to predict. 

Existing U.S. test facilities emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that react in sunlight to form smog, as well as carbon monoxide, methane and small amounts of two metals, mercury and lead, that can have neurological effects, according to an EPA report. The amount of emissions depends on the technology used and the trash burned.

Vetting projects
Public outcry against the plants, whether motivated by fear or facts, has been a leading factor in the failure of companies to move proposals past the local permitting stage. Since late 2012 citizen opposition has killed at least 11 proposals, including in Ada County, Idaho, Green Bay, Wisc., New York City, and Rockbridge County, Va. Proposals remain active in many other municipalities, with plants in Logansport, Ind., Baltimore, Reno, and Taunton, Mass., facing organized opposition.

But Linert's concern that local leaders lack the expertise to properly vet projects – or tend to look at projects uncritically until residents get involved – has merit.

In October 2012 in Wisconsin, the Green Bay Common Council revoked a permit it had granted 18 months earlier to developers of a pyrolysis plant. Council members, facing strong public outcry against the plant, said they were misled about the nature of the project – specifically whether it would involve smokestacks or emit hazardous air pollutants.

Developer Seven Generations Corp. sued, declaring the reversal unjustified. Last month a three-judge panel on a state appeals court agreed.

"Fickle and inconstant fairly describe the city's action here," the court's decision read. "No reasonable person could believe that a gas-burning engine would not produce exhaust, which must be expelled from the facility." The ruling characterized Green Bay's reversal as "unconsidered" and "irrational."

$2 million loss
Meanwhile, Ada County, Idaho, found itself in similar straits in 2012 amid public protests and allegations that county commissioners mishandled a local incinerator proposal. The county lost $2 million it loaned to a developer for a gasification plant after canceling the contract.

"I think they understood the [technological] process well, and I think the real issue was the lack of public involvement," said Larry Maneely, chief of staff for county commissioners. "Public hearings were not required on some of these processes, and county ordinances have been modified so that that's not an option in the future."

Lack of a track record remains a source of confusion and conflict around the new incineration technologies, said Harvey Gershman, a solid-waste-management consultant since 1978 who advises cities and other municipalities. "The public sector is cautious and waiting for some demonstration projects to get commercially proven."

'Need outside help'
Gershman and similar consultants – some of whom, according to incinerator opponents, have industry ties or engage in both pitching and evaluating technologies – are increasingly marketing their services to cities considering the new incinerators. "The communities do need outside help," Gershman said. 

Even North Las Vegas could find itself evaluating a second project. EnviroPower CEO Leonardo Riera said the company is considering for its next proposal more than a dozen other locations within Nevada, including elsewhere in North Las Vegas, and in an undisclosed neighboring state.

Linert, for her part, also is not done. "I definitely see this as a victory," she said. "But you can't just be idle and you can't just stop. For us, this is not a one-issue thing anymore."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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