Justice, greenhouse gas issues could slow approval of Covanta incinerator
State regulators will likely delay a decision on a new solid waste permit for Covanta Marion, the 36-year-old waste incinerator at Brooks, to address concerns raised during a public comment period.
Opponents say allowing the facility to operate as proposed flies in the face of Governor Kate Brown’s recent executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the Ministry of Quality’s stated commitment environment to ensure the protection of environmental justice.
“The Covanta Marion incinerator must cease operations and Marion County should send all of its solid waste to the landfill at Coffin Butte which emits significantly less greenhouse gases,” wrote Phil Carver, on behalf ofthe local environmental group 350 Salem OR.
The incinerator burns most of Marion County’s residential and commercial waste, generating electricity that it sells to Portland General Electric.
The proposed permit would allow the facility to continue operating and regulate what it can take to burn. It does not regulate polluting emissions to the air or water from the incinerator, which are governed by separate permits.
Communities of color, children nearby
Opponents said approval of the permit would violate an executive order signed by Brown in March 2020 ordering 16 state agencies, including DEQ, to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
Covanta Marion emitted 162,437 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, according to DEQ data. That’s the equivalent of driving 35,327 passenger cars for a year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Covanta Marion is the number one greenhouse gas emitter in Marion County and the 22nd in the state.
Brown’s executive order also notes that climate change has a disproportionate impact on the well-being of the most vulnerable communities.
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In written comments to DEQ, opponents said the proposed permit violates principles of environmental justice.
EPA data shows that communities within a five-mile radius of the incinerator are already at higher risk for environmental and socio-economic stressors, contributing to persistent health disparities.
These communities include Brooks, Keizer and northeastern Salem.
According to EPA data, there are more people of color in those nearbycommunities than in 79% of other populated areas of Oregon. And there are more children less than 5 years in these communities than in 71% of other Oregon communities.
Covanta spokeswoman Nicolle K. Robles responded to the concerns in an email to the Statesman Journal.
âCovanta Marion is a modern waste-to-energy facility that operates under strict federal and state regulations. We remain a small contributor to local emissions – especially in relation to the transportation and use of gas utilities and as numerous studies have proven this facility, and others like it, is safe. for the health and well-being of the community, âsaid Robles.
Electric utilities are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, according to DEQ.
“Covanta applauds the efforts of the governor and other groups who are trying to reduce greenhouse gases,” she said. “We believe we are adapting to the state’s admirable goals of managing society’s waste sustainably.”
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DEQ is however considering penalizing Covanta Marion for violating its air quality permit.
In June, DEQ notified the company that it planned to take enforcement action because the company was using its emergency engine in non-emergency situations more than permitted.
Back-up engines typically run on fuels, such as diesel, which cause additional pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The potential citation is still under review, Darling said.
Covanta sale in progress
The permit review comes as a sale of Covanta Marion’s parent company is underway.
Covanta Holding Corp., based in New Jersey, operates more than 40 waste-to-energy facilities in North America, Europe and the United Kingdom.
In July, the company announced that EQT Infrastructure had agreed to acquire all of the common shares of Covanta. The $ 5.3 billion deal with the Swedish-based investment conglomerate would rob Covanta.
EQT investment funds have portfolio companies in Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Americas with more than 175,000 employees and annual sales of approximately $ 33 billion.
The purchase is subject to government and shareholder approval and is expected to be finalized by the end of the year. The pending sale will not impact the clearance process, Darling said.
Marion County does not anticipate any change in the services it receives from Covanta Marion as a result of the sale, said Brian May, director of the county’s environmental services division.
In June, county commissioners ended a three-decade partnership with Covanta Marion.
The county paid to build the incinerator, which is now owned by Covanta, and has already paid much of the operating expenses. The county also received a large portion of the burner’s revenue.
Today, Covanta Marion still collects most of the county’s waste, but it operates as an independent business.
Covanta Marion’s current permit for solid waste expired on August 30, but it is allowed to continue operating it until a new one is approved because it filed its permit application on time.
The proposed new permit does not change the type of waste the facility can accept.
This includes municipal solid waste, including infectious waste, pharmaceutical waste, cannery waste, undigested sewage sludge, and pumping from septic tanks. It can also accept specific hazardous wastes from small generators; and narcotics, illicit drugs and equipment and materials used in the production of illicit drugs seized by law enforcement.
In June, the Statesman Journal reported that in addition to picking up the county’s garbage, Covanta was hauling industrial waste from across the country.
Documents obtained as part of a public documents request show that they are plastics, oily solids, foamed peanuts, paint, rubber and pharmaceutical waste.
Some groups have asked DEQ to limit the acceptance of waste that can cause toxic emissions or create toxic ash.
“Just because it is not considered a hazard in the form received by the facility does not mean that its elements will not be transformed into dangerous toxic emissions upon incineration,” wrote a coalition of groups calling themselves Clean Air Now. The coalition includes Beyond Toxics, PCUN, Latinos Unidos Siempre, 350 Salem, Salem Democratic Socialists of America, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Eastside Portland Air Coalition.
The group asked DEQ to look for potential precursors of toxic emissions and take action to eliminate combustion at the incinerator as much as possible.
Oregon administrative rules ask DEQ to make final permit decision by October 11, within 45 days of the close of the comment period. This can be extended to schedule a public hearing and take comments into account.
DEQ will not be holding a hearing on the proposal, Darling said. The ministry received no comments when the solid waste permit was issued 10 years ago, and only a few this time, he said.
âBased on the level of public interest, it wasn’t necessary,â he said. But the department has met with members of the Clean Air Now coalition and will address their concerns, he said.
Tracy Loew is a reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at [email protected], 503-399-6779 or on Twitter at @Tracy_Loew. Support local journalism by subscribing to the Statesman Journal.