In October 2019, the state Department of Environmental Quality issued a new air quality permit for the Covanta trash incinerator outside Salem, the 20th largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Oregon.
DEQ proposed doubling its GHG emission limit. The change did not reflect an actual increase in emissions, rather a new requirement to count a previously uncounted fraction. But the history behind this accounting footnote reveals something worse: a web of manipulated and outdated science spun by corporate interests, often in collusion with regulatory agencies, at the expense of a healthy environment.
Waste incinerators produce two types of greenhouse gases: biogenic from burning wood, food waste and grass clippings and anthropogenic from plastics, synthetics and other fossil-fuel products.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency had ruled that, for incinerators, biogenic GHGs did not count, because carbon emissions from burning biogenic matter were offset by natural processes. As if trees, when they sequester carbon dioxide, could tell the difference between that which comes from a burnt telephone versus burnt scraps of pizza.
In 2013, the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals found the EPA's argument lacked scientific evidence. In a ruling that sided with environmentalists against the EPA and its corporate allies, the court stated: "The atmosphere makes no distinction between carbon dioxide emitted by biogenic and fossil-fuel sources."
The difference is hardly trivial. Half of the greenhouse gases emitted by incinerators are biogenic. It is precisely this accounting fallacy that underpins claims that incinerators are better for global warming than landfills.
In May 2019, Covanta testified in the Oregon state Senate that waste incineration resulted in a net reduction in greenhouse gases, citing a 2013 National Renewable Energy Lab paper, which concluded that, compared to the incinerators of the 1970s and '80s, modern facilities released fewer greenhouse gases than landfills.
Covanta, however, was built in 1987 and is, as the company testified, in need of improvements. Furthermore, the analysis applied to the newer facilities excluded biogenic greenhouse gases and is therefore scientifically outdated. Covanta also cherry-picked its comparisons, neglecting to mention the superior performance of alternatives that maximize re-use and recycling.
In 2017, when Metro considered sending Portland's trash to Covanta, they hired Ollson Environmental Health Management to compare the incinerator with the landfill alternative.
For greenhouse gas emissions, Ollson found it was a toss-up between Covanta and the landfill. Both methodologies used were developed by the EPA and excluded biogenic GHGs. If they were counted, the balance would tip heavily in favor of the landfill.
According to Ollson, Covanta "expressed a number of concerns about modeling assumptions" and lobbied Ollson to modify their calculations. Ollson declined. Metro decided to stick with the landfill.
Since then, other independent researchers, including Sound Resource Management and the Center for International Environmental Law, have found that incineration produces more greenhouse gases per unit of trash disposed than any of the alternatives.
Science that is outdated, manipulated, cherry-picked or lacking in evidence is junk science. It often is deployed by polluting industries to bamboozle the public into supporting bad policy choices. Rather than junk, we need good science. With the DEQ's new mandate to count all greenhouse gas emissions, Covanta can no longer spin itself as the most climate-friendly alternative we have.
Dr. Patricia Kullberg is a Portland native and the former medical director of the Multnomah County Health Department. She researches issues related to public health and climate change for Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.
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