When Zero Waste is Environmental Racism

- by Kaya Banton, Chester Environmental Justice

 

My name is Kaya Banton and I have been a resident of Chester, Pennsylvania all of my life.  Chester is a small city right outside of Philadelphia known as one of the worst cases of environmental racism.

 

There are a number of polluting facilities in and surrounding Chester. The most famous is Covanta, the nation’s largest waste incinerator, burning 3,510 tons of trash per day. Though Covanta is the largest incinerator in the country, they have the fewest pollution controls of any incinerator in the nation. Within a mile of Covanta, 80% of the population is black. Only 1.5% of waste being burned at Covanta comes from Chester. The rest comes from wealthy suburban areas of Delaware County, Philadelphia, and New York.

 

Covanta is the largest polluter in Chester and one of the largest in all of eastern Pennsylvania.  Due to the pollutants from Covanta and other industries, many people in Chester have cancer, asthma, and other horrific diseases. I know entire families that have asthma or cancer. Both my mother and my little sister developed chronic asthma after moving to Chester. The childhood asthma hospitalization rate in Chester is three times the state average.

 

With research and organizing support from Energy Justice Network last summer, community members went door to door last year and packed city hall twice, winning a unanimous vote of the planning commission, recommending that city council shoot down plans for the rail box building to receive New York City's steel trash containers. Unfortunately, city council voted in favor of Covanta because they did not want to get sued. Covanta was permitted to bring New York’s trash by rail, which will put them at full capacity. A big concern from the council was the amount of trash trucks coming through the city. Covanta said that since the trash will be coming by rail, the truck traffic will be decreased majorly, but even though residents made it clear that the trash containers will be taken through Chester by train to Wilmington, Delaware then back into Chester by truck. This will not decrease truck traffic, but will only increase pollution by adding train traffic.

 

I did some research and found out that New York’s zero waste plan is actually a “zero waste to landfill” plan that locked in 20 to 30 years of burning waste in Chester, making the impacts of my city invisible while New York gets the benefit of looking green. I was incredibly confused as to how New York City environmental justice groups could celebrate the announcement of a zero waste plan that allowed waste to be burned in Chester. We give toxic tours of our community upon request for those wanting to see what we experience on a daily basis.  

 

We invite anyone, especially those from Philadelphia and New York, to contact us for a tour.

WE WON!! Environmental Justice Victory in DC, as Mayor Pulls Incinerator Contract

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

We just stopped Washington, DC from approving a $36-78 million contract that was awarded to Covanta to burn the District's waste for the next 5-11 years.

In a rigged bidding process, the city allowed just four incinerators (no landfills) to bid to take 200,000 tons of waste a year. The one of the four that is in a rural white community does not accept out-of-county waste, leaving three incinerators in heavily populated communities of color as the only ones eligible to bid. The contract was awarded to Covanta's incinerator in Lorton, VA -- 4th largest in the nation and one of the largest polluters in the DC metro region. Lorton is the 12th most diverse community of color in the nation, and is also home to a sewage sludge incinerator and three landfills.

As I documented in an article last year, DC's waste system is a glaring example of environmental racism, from where the waste transfer stations are, to where much of it ends up in Lorton. On the way to this latest victory, we got the large (389 living unit) cooperative where I live in DC to change its waste contract to disallow incineration, a tiny step toward starving the Covanta incinerator. Now, we have a chance to shift the entire city away from incineration. I hope we can also repeat this in Philadelphia as their Covanta contract (for burning in Chester, PA) comes up for renewal in each of the next few years.

We did our homework and made a strong case, got diverse allies on board, educated and pressured DC city council, and flattened Covanta's 11th hour lies. Energy Justice Network was joined by 20 environmental, public health, civil rights and business organizations in calling on city council not to move the contract to final approval, and ultimately, our new mayor withdrew it from consideration, killing it.

The city will now have to cut a 1-year contract (hopefully not with any incinerator, if we can help it). This buys us time to convince city leaders that incinerators are indeed worse than landfills and that we need to resort to landfilling as we get the city's zero waste goals implemented, including digestion of residuals prior to landfilling.

Last summer, we helped pass a law that bans Styrofoam and other food service-ware that isn't recyclable or compostable, gets e-waste and composting going, and requires the city to come up with a zero waste plan (and we got it amended to ensure that incineration is not considered "diversion," but "disposal"). We're at a good crossroads in DC, where we can get the nation's capital setting good examples. The long-standing head of the Department of Public Works is stepping down, giving the city a chance to replace him and others anti-recycling incinerator zealots in the agency with real zero waste leaders. Any good candidates are encouraged to apply here.

EJ Victory! Taking Responsibility for Where Your Trash Goes...

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

I’m excited to open this issue by sharing our first victory of its kind: stopping a major city (Washington, DC) from signing a long-term incineration contract that was expensive, polluting, unhealthy, and racist.

The worst thing that can happen with your waste is for it to be burned. We’ve found this to be the case with waste from Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York City, where trash ends up being burned in some of the nation’s largest and filthiest incinerators – in communities of color in Lorton, Virginia and Chester, Pennsylvania that are already heavily polluted by a concentration of dirty industries.

These major cities have closed incinerators within their borders many years ago, and DC, New York and Los Angeles are among many that have examined and rejected the idea of building their own new incinerators in the last few years. However, they have not been shy about sending waste to be burned in other communities.

The zero waste term is being hijacked by these cities, auto companies, Disney, and others claiming “zero waste to landfill” goals. This term is a code word for “incinerate our remaining waste and pretend the toxic ash doesn’t still go to landfills.” Leading zero waste consultants and activist allies are even now greenwashing these schemes through certification and membership in bodies like the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council. Just last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a zero waste resolution that includes a waste hierarchy that, like EPA’s, places incinerators above landfilling, driving more misguided city decisions to opt for incinerators.

Our victory in DC shows that environmental justice allies in a major city can take responsibility and stop their waste from being burned, as we chart the way to true zero waste strategies.

As the last few articles in this issue show, there are conflicts between waste strategies among grassroots activists in New York City. What started as an effort to have fair distribution of transfer stations within the city resulted in the worst possible outcome for environmental justice: a 20-30 year contract to send much of the city’s waste to be burned in Covanta incinerators in Niagara Falls, NY and in Chester, PA. Our efforts to stop the trash train plan on the Chester end failed last summer, and efforts are still underway in Manhattan to stop one of the two transfer points that would feed waste to Covanta’s incinerators, but aren’t looking good.

Unfortunately, NYC Mayor de Blasio’s “One New York” plan, announced this past Earth Day, is a “zero waste to landfill” plan that masks the city’s intent to keep burning its waste in facilities that would never be accepted within the city. The Covanta contract contains clever “put-or-pay” provisions that ensure that NYC pays for waste transportation to Covanta incinerators even if zero waste efforts are so successful that the city doesn’t have enough waste to give. Will the city even come close to its zero waste goals, and if so, will they suck up the penalty of paying for a service they no longer need, or will budget constraints keep NYC poisoning people with incinerator pollution?

Transform Don't Trash NYC

- by Gavin Kearney (Environmental Justice Director, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest) & Eddie Bautista (Executive Director, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance)

New York City’s homes and businesses generate anywhere from 6 to 8 million tons of mixed solid waste every year – more than any other city in the country. And the manner in which it manages that waste is rife with injustice – a few NYC communities of color play host to numerous truck-intensive transfer facilities, while other communities of color as near as Newark and as far as Virginia and Ohio then receive NYC’s waste for landfilling and incineration. For over a decade we have been working with environmental justice advocates and other allies in NYC to address these issues. We have achieved some important incremental victories over pitched opposition. But much remains to be done. 

Ultimately, if it is to do right by Environmental Justice (EJ) communities, NYC needs to greatly diminish the amount of material it exports for disposal and build local recycling infrastructure while minimizing community impacts, creating a safer workplace for waste workers, and reducing environmental harms.  To build the will for this within the City we are working to expand the local discussion around solid waste to encompass worker well-being, economic development, climate change, fair treatment for small businesses, and, of course, environmental justice. This is the focus of our current, ongoing campaign for solid waste reform – Transform Don’t Trash NYC.

New York City Outsourcing Incineration

- by Dara Hunt

Congratulations to Energy Justice Network and other organizations on stopping a Covanta contract to incinerate DC waste in an Environmental Justice community. 

Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in stopping New York City’s plan, and a 20-year contract with Covanta Energy to transport and burn 800,000 tons per year, or more, of New York City’s putrescible waste in poorly filtered Covanta incinerators in Chester, PA, and Niagara Falls, NY.

This disposal strategy is part of New York City’s 20-Year, 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). The SWMP didn’t set aggressive waste reduction goals for New York City or establish concrete plans to reform the City’s poorly regulated private waste industry.  A modest 25 percent recycling target set in the SWMP has never been achieved – the City’s recycling rates remain at abysmal levels: 15-16 percent for City collected waste and around 24 percent for privately collected waste. Instead, the SWMP focused on building large and expensive, single-purpose waste transport facilities and long-term contracts to move waste to distant disposal sites.   

Many of us believe the plan’s focus on investment in new buildings and 20+ year waste transfer and disposal contracts takes the City in the wrong direction – tethering us to a lagging, high waste volume status quo. New York City needs to implement price incentives to create better waste behavior. We need aggressive goals and programs to help residents, businesses and government agencies reduce or divert much more waste. And the City needs to clean up private waste industry vehicles and operations through better oversight. 

EXCLUSIVE: Biomass Energy and the Carbon Neutral Shell Game

- by Brett Leuenberger, July 6, 2015, The Biomass Monitor (Graphics by Brett Leuenberger)
 
Related Content: Biomass Incineration and Climate (debunking carbon neutrality)
Who would have ever thought that clean renewable energy could come from a smokestack? And yet, according to our U.S. government and the biomass industry, that’s exactly what’s happening when you burn trees (biomass) for energy. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to renewable energy, I think of wind turbines and solar panels producing clean, emission-free renewable energy.
 
While the final rulemaking process for biomass emissions is still in review, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released this memo last November from Janet McCabe to industry stakeholders, which endorses most biomass emissions as carbon neutral:
 
  • "For waste-derived feedstocks, the EPA intends to propose exempting biogenic CO2 emissions from GHG BACT analyses and anticipates basing that proposal on the rationale that those emissions are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic CO2 emissions, or even reduce such impacts, when compared with an alternate fate of disposal."
Most of us can agree with the fact that we’re facing unprecedented global climate change due to our use of fuels that emit greenhouse gases (mainly carbon) into the atmosphere. There are a few possible ways to address this global climate challenge. One way is to vastly reduce or terminate our use of carbon emitting fuel sources by transitioning to emission-free energy sources like wind, solar and tidal. We could expand on that idea by creating hyper-local communities that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy through the use of micro-grids. That’s why the carbon emissions from biomass are so critically important, especially as we look to our future energy and transportation needs and how those choices affect our earth’s climate.
 
The Biomass Boondoggle
 
There are multiple environmental issues with burning wood for biomass energy. Burning wood (pulp, chips, trimmings, sawdust residues and whole trees) for biomass energy actually emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fossil fuels. Compared to fossil fuels, woody biomass is significantly less energy efficient and you need to burn at least twice as much wood to produce the same amount of thermal energy. For example, one ton of wood pellets produce 16.5 million BTU’s of energy while one ton of #2 fuel oil produces (52% more) 33.8 million BTU’s of energy.
 
Burning trees for biomass is a double whammy for the environment; not only are you adding more carbon emissions than fossil fuels, but you are also removing trees that work as carbon sinks and sequester vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. The biomass industry claims they use low value waste wood for fuel, but overwhelming evidence shows the industry repeatedly using whole trees for biomass and wood pellet production. 
 
Similarly, the industry is not obligated to account for the immediate or future loss of carbon sequestration from harvested trees. When compared to other “free” renewable energy sources like wind and solar, biomass energy is considerably more expensive to operate and requires long-term costs for sourcing the woody biomass fuel. Likewise, using woody biomass as a fuel source for electric utility power is not always cost effective in a competitively priced energy market. Here’s an example of a biomass plant forced to shut down; it was cheaper to remain idle than trying to supply power to the grid, leaving ratepayers on the hook.
 
The emissions from woody biomass contain high concentrations of particulates, which increase the air quality health risks to humans. Burning biomass exacerbates the problem of ocean acidification by taking locked-up terrestrial carbon (trees) and transforming it to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of ocean acidification. The growing U.S. biomass industry is creating an increased demand for wood, which can escalate clearcutting, deforestation, forest fragmentation, land-use changes and species habitat loss, as pointed out in this multi-disciplinary collegiate study from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

AUDIO: Honoring the Environmental Movement’s Fallen Heroes | The Biomass Monitor Conference Call (June 2015)

Honoring the Environmental Movement’s Fallen Heroes | The Biomass Monitor Conference Call (June 2015)

Any of us who have worked to try to make the world a better place hopes to have made a difference during our short time on Earth. We want to be remembered for our contributions, and maybe even carve out our own little place in history.

Yet, unlike the deaths of celebrities and politicians, the passing of environmental advocates doesn’t always make the news, so the songs of these green heroes often go unsung. 

To honor the memory of those who dedicated their lives to the protection of the air, water, and living ecosystems that give us all life, The Biomass Monitor hosted a conference call on June 18 where callers memorialized someone in their lives who worked for the cause that underlies all causes –  the natural world we depend on for survival.

Listen to the audio link here.

Join The Biomass Monitor conference calls on the 3rd Thursdays of every month at 5 pm PT (8 ET). 

Next call is on July 16 @ 5 pm PT (8 ET): "Is Incineration Zero Waste?" 

In Memory of Those Who Have Fallen | June issue of The Biomass Monitor

“How did it get so late so soon?”…Oh well, here’s the June issue of The Biomass Monitor -- the nation’s leading publication covering the health and environmental impacts of biomass energy!

Inside this issue, “In Memory of Those Who Have Fallen”:

- Bonnie Phillips, Friend of the Forest

Remembering Marvin Wheeler

Martin Litton: A Giant in Protecting the Earth

...and more!

Please share the June 2015 issue of The Biomass Monitor with your friends, colleagues, neighbors, media, and elected officials! 

Subscribe to free, monthly email issues of The Biomass Monitor, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

 

 

Remembering Marvin Wheeler

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network (The Biomass Monitor - June 2015)
 
When we formed Allentown Residents for Clean Air (ARCA) in 2012, we couldn't have kicked it off without Marvin Wheeler, who found us as an active member of the West Park Civic Association. As a retired school nurse, Marvin understood the health threat posed by the plan to burn 150 tons a day of trash and sewage sludge in the heart of Pennsylvania's third largest city.
 
Surrounded by schools, parks, playgrounds, public housing, a hospital, and a prison, this experimental incinerator was a threat to all that Marvin held dear.  
 
"Keep in mind, this is a brown and black low-income neighborhood," he reminded us. "I think they picked this site because of the county prison that's over there... it's like 'kill the prisoners a littler earlier, before they finish their sentences.'"
 
It saddens us that he is no longer with us to see the fruits of the victory he helped make possible. When others weren't available to help, Marvin organized a petitioners committee and kicked off the effort to bring the issue to the voters. He helped us collect the thousands of signatures we needed to get the Allentown Clean Air Ordinance we drafted onto the city ballot so that the people could choose to adopt protections from incinerator pollution. In freezing winter weather, Marvin worked hard on collecting signatures, slogging from door to door with us, welcoming us into his home, and introducing us to other key people in the community. His warm and humorous personality kept us going in the frantic drive to collect enough signatures in the city's initiative process.
 
While we didn't win the way we had planned (at the polls), the incinerator deal has fallen apart in the past several months. As one of the original petitioners, Marvin is named in our lawsuit over the ordinance initiative (which is still in the courts, as we fight over the right for people to vote on such matters). The delays killed the project as permits and investors were also tied up. The 35-year waste supply contract with the city was canceled by the city late last year. The company's air permit was rescinded a few months ago, and their waste permit (which we also legally challenged) was just revoked as well.
 
As a medical professional, Marvin was teaching kids about asthma triggers and understood that incinerator would be a large one. He spoke about how asthma inhalers and medicines just treat the symptom after the disease, and spoke of the need to be proactive, not reactive. 
 
"The issue here is air quality... and when you think about that and the number of children in this area and the school less than a half a mile from here... what impact does it have on those middle school children?"
 
Here is a fantastic video of Marvin speaking about the struggle, and how "we have to do something different" with green jobs and recycling, not incineration.

Media Bias for Biomass Energy? | May issue of The Biomass Monitor

“In the merry month of May, I was taken by surprise”…by the May issue of The Biomass Monitor -- the nation’s leading publication covering the health and environmental impacts of biomass energy!

Inside this issue, “Media Bias for Biomass Energy?”:

- Media Bias for Biomass Energy?

Journalists: Incinerators Are Not Waste-to-Energy Facilities

Media Disinformation on Biomass

...and more!

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