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Company spokeswoman says media firestorm was much ado about nothing, but county commissioners still looking to adjust ordinance

by: TYLER FRANCKE - The Marion County Waste-to-Energy Facility was the center of a media firestorm over allegations that were later expressly denied.A waste-to-energy garbage burning operation in the tiny unincorporated community of Brooks made global news last week, after allegations surfaced that the plant was processing aborted fetuses from Canada — despite express denials by the facility’s operator.

The claims were first reported in the B.C. Catholic, a paper published by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Vancouver, British Columbia. The newspaper quoted anonymous sources with the British Columbia Ministry of Health, which said some “biomedical waste, including human tissue, such as surgically removed cancerous tissue, amputated limbs, and fetal tissue … is transferred to Oregon. There it is incinerated in a waste-to-energy plant.”

The paper later confirmed that this “plant” is one and the same with the Marion County Waste-to-Energy Facility, also known as the Marion County Resource Recovery Facility, in Brooks.

The publication translated “fetal tissue” as “miscarried and aborted fetuses,” though this definition was not attributed to the health ministry, or any other source.

The allegation that aborted babies were being burned for electricity sparked a frenzy of media attention, being picked up by hundreds of outlets across the country and the world.

But as it turned out, the accusation was completely erroneous, according to Jill Stueck, vice president of marketing and communications for Covanta Energy Corporation, the company that owns and operates the plant in Brooks.

“It’s not just inaccurate; it’s completely false,” she said.

Stueck said “fetal tissue” refers to other biological material associated with birth, such as umbilical cords and placentas — not fetuses. Fetuses would be classified as “human remains” and are in a different category.

“This is a mixing-together of terms that mean completely different things,” she said. “We’re not burning babies.”

Stueck said she was as shocked as anyone when she saw the news last week.

“It’s a horrifying, horrible concept,” she said. “I was like, ‘If this is true, I’m alarmed. This is my company, and this is not something I would support.’”

So she made contact with Stericycle, the third-party contractor that delivers the biomedical waste to Brooks. The waste arrives in sealed containers, which employees are not permitted to open, but Stericycle representatives guaranteed that the bins do not contain aborted babies, Stueck said.

“They assured me there are no fetuses in this waste stream,” she said.

The media scrutiny last week was such that the Marion County Board of Commissioners was compelled to temporarily halt the acceptance of all medical waste at the facility. In an April 23 press release, commissioners said they were “outraged and disgusted” by the reports.

The commissioners also convened at an emergency meeting Thursday morning, wherein they discussed adding an amendment to the contracts of biomedical transporters that would specifically exclude human fetuses.

Though the plant is privately owned and operated, the commission controls the waste stream that enters the county through contractors such as Stericycle and can therefore place restrictions on the materials processed at local facilities.

Jolene Kelly, a spokeswoman for the board, said commissioners planned to take up the amendment as part of their regular meeting Wednesday, and that the discussion would also cover the definition of “human fetal tissue” for the purposes of the ordinance.

If anything, Kelly said, this incident has shown commissioners that some ambiguity exists as to the precise definition of “fetal tissue.” Though the board is not opposed to the processing of umbilical cords or placentas, she said the county wants to ensure that no contractor could interpret “fetal tissue” as encompassing human fetuses.

“(The commissioners) just want to make sure the ordinance is changed so it can’t be interpreted that way,” she said.

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