The idea of burning Portland's garbage to produce electricity got what amounts to a clean bill of health in a recent draft Health Impact Assessment commissioned by Metro.
The preliminary 132-page report, now being vetted by a Metro advisory group, raises no significant concerns about the health or environmental risks of burning garbage at the Covanta-owned waste-to-energy incinerator in Brooks, a few miles north of Salem.
The report could give the Metro Council the confidence — and political cover — to commence negotiating with Covanta to burn 200,000 tons a year of the metro area's garbage, about 15 percent of what's now sent to the Arlington landfill in eastern Oregon.
Metro, which is rethinking the region's waste-disposal system before the Arlington landfill contract comes up for renewal in 2019, hired HDR Engineering to conduct a "quick" Health Impact Assessment before proceeding further with the garbage-burning plan. HDR teamed with Ollson Environmental Health Management.
Health Impact Assessments are akin to Environmental Impact Statements, evaluating the myriad effects a project might have on human health.
Comparing burning to landfilling
Metro asked the consultants to compare the health and environmental impacts of garbage-burning in Brooks to sending the garbage to a landfill 150 miles to the east — essentially the status quo.
The Health Impact Assessment, or HIA, found very few differences between the two.
"The HIA finds that either can be done in a manner that would not adversely affect public health," the report concludes.
That should buttress the arguments of Metro officials who support garbage burning — who have encountered public resistance since residents fended off a proposed Oregon City garbage burner in the early 1980s.
Though garbage incinerators emit hazardous substances such as cadmium, mercury, dioxin, lead and nitrogen oxides, plus invisible "ultrafine" particles that lodge into people's lungs, the consultants found those have not posed problems at
Covanta's facility, which opened in 1987.
Rather, they found the biggest health risks were from earthquakes, fires and accidents.
The pollutant of biggest concern was nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which can pollute the air, irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and exacerbate asthma. However, the consultants noted that NOx emissions have been lower than the amount permitted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Surprising advantage for landfills
Interestingly, the report found that a landfill would result in fewer carbon emissions. That goes against conventional wisdom because garbage now is carried by diesel-spewing trucks for 150 miles to Waste Management's Arlington facility, and landfills emit methane gas from rotting garbage. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
The report found that landfills tend to "store" rather than emit carbon, much of it in the form of plastics, much like forests store carbon in trees.
However, the report notes that burning garbage at Covanta's facility would generate 13 megawatts of electricity, 10 times the amount of electricity available from processing waste at the landfill.
Despite the rosy assessment, at least one member of a Metro advisory committee is skeptical: Joe Miller, an activist with Physicians for Social Responsibility.
"I would say that's a whitewash," Miller says of the draft report.
As a result, a Metro Solid Waste Alternatives Advisory Committee scheduled Wednesday to review the Health Impact Assessment will be delayed so consultants can address the advisory committee members' concerns, says Metro spokesman Ken Ray.
Miller's PhD is in psychology, not science, but among the classes he taught during 35 years at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, was social ecology, which examined pollution and sustainability. Miller fought against an incinerator in South Bend, Indiana, in the late-1980s and has opposed them ever since.
Miller agrees that NOx emissions are a grave concern, and notes that the Covanta emissions were only about 13 percent below DEQ limits from 2011 to 2015, and only 4 percent below the more-stringent federal limits.
But at least NOx is measured constantly at the Covanta facility, with ongoing results sent to the DEQ.
Mercury, lead, cadmium, hydrochloric acid and dioxin are tested only once a year at the smokestack, Miller notes.
He says that's not very accurate, noting some of the biggest emissions of dioxin are when the facility malfunctions, stops and starts up again. The
AMESA sampling system used in Belgium found actual dioxin emissions can be 30 to 50 times greater than annual tests reveal, he says.
Perhaps Miller's biggest concern is the ultrafine particles emitted by incinerators.
"The particles are so small that they go right into the blood stream," Miller says, passing through the blood brain barrier and the placenta of a pregnant mother.
"Ultrafines are neither measured nor regulated under our regulations," he says, "so an incinerator is free to say we meet all the regulations."
The Health Impact Assessment makes scant reference to microscopic particulates, noting there is no established "safe level" for them. It also raises questions that the nearest ambient air monitoring devices are in Portland, some 40 miles from Brooks.
Covanta touts air
During a tour last spring of the Brooks facility, Paul Gilman, Covanta's chief sustainability officer and senior vice president, said incinerator air pollution controls have improved vastly in this country since 1990, when they were made subject to the Clean Air Act.
The Brooks facility uses "state-of-the-art" pollution controls, Gilman said. Among those is a massive baghouse, which filters emissions using 720 24-foot-high woven fiberglass bags.
Gilman didn't dispute the potential hazards from ultrafine particles, but he cited a 2014 literature review in the scientific journal Waste Management that said the volume of ultrafine particles from an incinerator are comparable to those of a large pickup truck. The journal article said a person cooking in the kitchen may be exposed to more ultrafine particles than a neighbor of an incinerator, in part because the cook is operating in a closed-air system.
"Generally speaking, so far the indications are it shouldn't be an issue of concern," Gilman said.
Todd Silverstein, a recently retired chemistry and biochemistry professor from Willamette University, has taken students through tours of the Covanta facility over the years.
Unlike Miller, he's not against the idea of garbage burning.
"I think it's possible to incinerate garbage safely," Silverstein says. "I would say if the system is up to snuff and the baghouse is working as it should, then you should be able to filter out the ultrafine particles, but that's a big if."
He's highly concerned about the burning of medical waste at Covanta, which includes opioid drugs collected in prescription drug return efforts, plus syringes, plastic tubing, and saline bags.
Ironically, the bottles containing opioid drugs may be a bigger concern when burned that the actual drugs, he says, because medical waste, mostly from the plastic, produces significant amounts of dioxin, a persistent and highly dangerous pollutant.
Covanta does annual checks of its dioxin and other hazardous emissions at the smokestack, but those are done via a contractor hired by the company, not by DEQ, the state regulator. Thus Covanta is in position to know when the measurements are being taken, Silverstein says, and can take steps to make the results look better, such as not burning any medical waste that day.
If there were random inspections conducted by outside entities, Silverstein says he'd be more comfortable with the health and safety of Covanta operations.
"DEQ," he says, "has never been willing to insist on that."
Metro's Solid Waste Alternatives Advisory Committee is scheduled to review the draft Health Impact Assessment on Wednesday, July 12, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Metro offices in Northeast Portland.
The Metro Council is scheduled to discuss the assessment at a work session on July 25.