Metro’s elected leaders will decide Tuesday whether to pursue burning the Portland area’s garbage to produce electricity at an incinerator four miles north of Salem.

The regional government’s staff will ask the Metro Council for authority to research the costs and benefits of burning our trash and open formal talks with Covanta, which operates the Marion County Energy-from-Waste Facility in Brooks, says Paul Slyman, Metro director of property and environmental services. Metro figures one-fifth of the tricounty area’s trash, about 200,000 tons a year, could get trucked to Brooks and burned, requiring Covanta to double the size of its plant.

Metro’s 30-year contract to truck most of the region’s garbage to the Arlington landfill in Eastern Oregon expires in four years, so it’s exploring garbage burning as one of two alternatives. The other option is Advanced Materials Recovery, which uses conveyor belts to screen out paper, cardboard, metals, plastics and other recyclable materials from the waste stream.

“Rather than putting our garbage into the landfill, is there more that we can do to get more value out of our garbage?” Slyman queried.

His staff will seek permission Tuesday to move forward evaluating both alternatives. However, the staff report prepared for the Metro Council work session seems to dash water on the Advanced Materials Recovery option. Metro’s preliminary review found that works best in “communities without robust curbside recycling,” and the Portland area has that in spades.

Metro wants second look

Garbage burning remains hugely controversial here because of its high costs, air pollutants emitted from the smokestacks, and toxic materials in the ash left over after combustion.

But Metro has been pushing the region to re-evaluate the idea, saying critics have an outdated notion of how it works. Metro cites Western Europe’s

experiences and Covanta’s track

record in Brooks.

“They have operated with an excellent environmental record for quite a few years now,” Slyman says.

The Metro Council’s guidance “could send an important message” in favor of garbage burning — in contrast to the city of Portland’s views — says Bruce Walker, the city solid waste and recycling program manager.

“I’d have some real reservations about it,” Walker says.

While the city has no formal position against garbage burning, it’s not on the city’s list of priorities for reducing garbage in the landfill, Walker says.

Tradeoffs complex

If the Metro Council agrees, Metro hopes to now compare the carbon footprint of the current system with garbage burning, Slyman says.

Under the Metro contract, several dozen trucks haul garbage 140 miles through the Columbia River Gorge each day to Waste Management’s Columbia River Landfill in

Arlington. Then those trucks return to town empty.

Though Waste Management now converts rotting garbage to usable energy, the garbage sits three to five years before that can occur, Slyman says, emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

The Brooks facility is only 30 miles from Metro’s transfer center in Oregon City. Slyman adds that burning garbage for electricity is much more efficient than producing energy at the landfill.

Health concerns

Physicians for Social Responsibility opposes garbage burning, largely due to the toxic ash produced by combustion and “ultra-fine” particulate matter emitted from smokestacks.

Such particles, as tiny as 1/100,000 the width of a human hair, can bind to other airborne toxins, says Joe Miller, an activist with the local Physicians for Social Responsibility chapter.

“Such toxic-laden ultra-fines then get lodged in our lungs, and enter our bloodstream and organs, producing inflammation and oxidative stress, and increasing the potential for a variety of serious respiratory, circulatory and other problems, and even death,” Miller wrote in an open letter after the Metro Council ag reed to consider garbage burning last summer.

Jerry Powell, editor and publisher of Resource Recycling Inc., a national trade journal based in Portland, calls garbage burning a “devil’s choice.”

It may be an unwise environmental choice, he says, but it may be more economical to truck garbage from communities like Sherwood, Tualatin and Wilsonville 25 miles to Brooks instead of 140 miles to Arlington.

Garbage burners are popular in Western Europe because they can’t find usable landfill sites, Powell says. There have been similar objections to siting landfills in the Willamette Valley, but there are now three large landfills along the Columbia River in Eastern Oregon and Washington.

Trucking garbage that far makes the costs of using landfills higher, Powell says. That makes recycling a better deal economically, and it may make the costs of garbage burning more competitive.

If Metro tried to site a new garbage burner, it would provoke a “firestorm of protest” as it did when the Marion County facility was first sited in 1987, Powell says. But now Covanta is well-established, has room for expansion, and an operating permit, making it a more viable option.

The city of Portland and other skeptics say garbage incinerators reduce the incentive to recycle and reuse trash. Slyman says that’s not proven to be the case in Marion County, which has one of Oregon’s highest recycling rates.

But the region’s increasing success at recycling has left the Brooks facility short of enough garbage to meet the terms of its electricity-generating contract with PGE, Powell says. As a result, it often needs to buy more garbage in February, he says.

As a result, he’s among those concerned that incinerators can bring a disincentive to recycle.

Still, Powell notes, it’s wise for Metro to consider its options now that there are multiple landfills available, unlike when the Arlington landfill opened as the only option.

It could be that Metro is using its pursuit of garbage burning as a bargaining chip, he says, as it negotiates new landfill contracts.

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