Rising from the Ashes

“Waste incineration is a dying technology,” says Monica Wilson, of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). The number of municipal waste stream incinerators in the United States has fallen by 40 percent since the start of the ’90s, and only three plants remain operational in California. But a host of technological advances may bring the practice of burning waste back from the grave.
Bradley Angel of GreenAction calls it “Halloween for the incinerator companies,” and describes a coordinated, state-wide effort to revive the technology: “For over a decade the industry laid very low because they got clobbered in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Now we’re seeing incinerators repackaged. They’re putting on costumes and making exaggerated claims of little or no pollution.”
Within the past few months, proposals or studies for incinerators have surfaced across California, from Crescent City at the Oregon border south to Los Angeles. “Waste-to-energy” plants are being considered in Del Norte, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Madera, and Riverside counties. As a third of California counties see their landfills swell to capacity within the next eight years, even more may seek what is marketed as “a clean, efficient, cost-effective alternative” for garbage disposal.
Industry representatives claim that new mass-burn incinerators are much cleaner than those that communities opposed during the ’80s and ’90s, when more than 300 incinerator proposals were cancelled in the US alone, according to GAIA. Jody Allione, development director for Barlow Projects, which is planning the Crescent City incinerator, cites its “patented incineration process with significant environmental controls, a complete system which takes out 99.9 percent of the particulates.” The Barlow incinerator would be outfitted with what is called the Maximum Available Control Technology, bringing emissions control well above EPA standards.
According to Angel and Wilson, the national standards are based not on health concerns but on technological limitations. Angel argues that the 10-year-old EPA standards haven’t kept up with current research: “We now know what we suspected all along: Dioxin is a carcinogen, and it causes reproductive, developmental, and immune problems at extremely low levels of exposure.” Solid waste burning facilities—even the new generation—emit small amounts of dioxins, as well as larger quantities of mercury, lead, and carbon monoxide.
Chowchilla and Alameda County are considering plants that use gasification or pyrolysis. These new “conversion technologies” are largely untested, and would fall under a new set of regulatory guidelines due out from the state Integrated Waste Management Board in late 2004. Gasification and pyrolysis plants use heat, pressure, and steam in the presence of limited oxygen to convert waste directly into a synthetic fuel and a solid material that might be used in construction. Although a study by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has argued that these technologies produce a set of air pollutants very similar to those emitted by the old mass-burn incinerators, proponents claim that pyrolysis and gasification emit at significantly lower levels. At its Conversion Technology Forum in 2001, the state waste management board identified “perception of conversion technologies as glorified combustion” as a major obstacle to their implementation. Indeed, Bradley Angel calls them “incinerators in disguise,” and GAIA points out that they are regulated as mass-burn incinerators throughout Europe.
Still, the idea of building “waste-to-energy” incinerators may become more seductive to county officials as the final deadline—extended from 2000 to 2005—approaches for compliance with AB 939’s mandate for 50 percent diversion of solid waste. Fines of up to $10,000 per day can be levied by the state board if counties don’t make a “good faith effort” to meet the goal. Under current regulations, up to ten percent of this diversion can be achieved by mass-burn incineration. New regulations for unproven technologies like gasification and pyrolysis will not include this credit.
A cursory look at the diversion statistics reveals that even with this credit, the three jurisdictions where mass-burn incinerators still operate have, on average, only a 41 percent diversion rate. In contrast, the five counties considering “waste-to-energy” proposals have an average rate of 52 percent diversion. Policy states that the board will not give diversion credits unless the jurisdiction can demonstrate a maximum commitment to reduction, recycling, and composting, but Bradley Angel calls this “a fantasy. The reality is that for an incinerator to make financial sense, you need a large waste stream.”
Barlow Projects, Inc. specializes in small-scale incinerators. Yet its proposed Crescent City plant would require more than 200 tons of garbage per day to be profitable. The community produces only 17 tons, so large amounts of waste would have to be shipped in from neighboring counties to keep the plant operating. It’s likely that incineration would compete directly with other waste reduction and recycling efforts.
Of the new proposals, the Chowchilla pyrolysis plant is the closest to being built, although no permits have been issued. Elsewhere, incinerators and “conversion” plants are in a study phase, which means that private companies have been contacted for bids, but no agreement has been reached. A spokesperson for Jeff Almquist, the Santa Cruz Supervisor who pushed for a study, likens opponents so early in the process to “ardent anti-abortionists, not wanting to have any kind of stem cell research.”
But while incinerator companies may be struggling to redefine themselves as clean, efficient, and new, their opponents are holding firm. “You’re not only polluting the air,” says Bradley Angel, “but providing a disincentive to the recycling program, and burning useful materials.”

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