Doctors and environmentalists oppose a proposal for Marion County to burn Portland garbage in local incinerators. They object to Metro, the regional government for people living in the Portland area, shipping 200,000 tons of waste each year to the Covanta Marion waste-to-energy facility in Brooks.

200,000 tons represents one-fifth of Metro’s yearly solid waste trash.

Metro is considering a change because its contract to ship garbage to an eastern Oregon landfill expires at the end of 2019 and it is seeking new ways of addressing the problem.

The Covinta facility says that if it took on the extra Metro garbage, it would require it doubling the capacity of the plant. Covanta Marion is an Energy-from-Waste facility that creates electricity from garbage it burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Its operation provides the county both electricity income.

Americans generate about 4.3 pounds of waste per day, and about 55% of that winds up in landfill. Metro and every other municipality must determine the best way to handle that quantity of garbage – with the most common ways being landfill or burning.

On October 7th, the Environmental Health Working Group of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (OPSR) sent a formal memo to Metro listing 11 reasons it would be environmentally ill advised to ship garbage to Marion County.

Among other points, OPSR cited data that waste-to-energy incinerators produce more pollution and global warming emissions per unit of electricity that coal fired power plants. It provided statistics from the Energy Justice Network that “to make the same amount of energy as a coal-powered 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, 6-14 times as much mercury, nearly six times as much lead and 70% more sulfur dioxides.”

OPSR also said that a group of toxic pollutants from the Covanta plant, nitrogen oxides, were already only 4% below the federal EPA limit in 2011 – 2014. With Marion County recently authorizing 25,000 tons of medical waste from California and Washington State to be burned every year, OPSR suggested that nitrogen oxides emissions would likely accelerate to dangerous levels.

The sheer doubling of the size of the plant presented its own concerns to OPSR, since a twice-larger facility would “… expand and perpetuate an outmoded, dirty, high-carbon technology [when] we need to do everything possible to rapidly transition to becoming a low carbon society based upon clean forms of energy, equity, health and low levels of waste, pollution and global warming emissions. Waste-to-energy perpetuates just the opposite of this vision.”

Notwithstanding OPSR’s objections, Metro continues to explore the idea of shipping the 200,000 tons to Marion County. In September, it directed staff to conduct a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of the proposal. The first session for the HIA was held on October 14th, and a second session will be held within six months. After that, a finished  assessment will be sent to Metro Council for consideration. Metro’s final decision on shipping waste to Marion County will be made in spring, 2018.

The lead author of the OSPR memo about the proposal was Joe Miller, PhD, who previously addressed Marion County Board of Commissioners in June 2016, to argue against Covanta taking on out-of-state medical waste. It was estimated that the medical waste proposal would bring $3.4 million to Marion County yearly.

In his testimony, Miller described OSPR’s

health and environmental concerns about the harmful pollution released by the process of burning medical waste. He added that the emissions monitoring at Covanta was flawed.

According to the EPA, medical waste incinerators are the third-largest source of dioxins in the country’s air.

In an address to the Salem City Club, Dr. Andy Harris, another member of OPSR, discussed the burning of medical waste at Covinta, saying, “Dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals on earth, the contaminant in Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War. Dioxins are Class 1 human carcinogens and according to the EPA, the average American’s cancer risk is increased 1000-fold because of dioxin stored in our bodies.”

In June, Marion County Commissioners approved the Covinta medical waste burning proposal.