Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The New York Times ran an article on Jan 11th, 2015, acting like incinerators are making a comeback, and featuring the huge Energy Answers incinerator proposed in Baltimore as if it's "being built" (which is not true).  Incinerators are trying to come back, but our movement is effectively beating back the industry almost everywhere they go, with Florida a rare exception.

We submitted this Op Ed to the New York Times, but they chose not to print it (or those submitted by several others to correct their reporting).

It's also worth nothing that in Massachusetts (one of the four states where the Times says large new trash incinerators are being considered) it's illegal to even build them, and none are being considered.  See our webpages on incineration and zero waste for more info.


Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The Times' Jan. 10th "Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback" article portrays a false trend.  Trash incinerators are the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to dispose of waste.  Since they impact health and property values, they're one of the most unpopular technologies in the world, and are actually on the decline in the U.S.

Far from a comeback, of the currently operating commercial-scale trash incinerators in the U.S., the last one to be built at a new site came online in 1995.  From 1995 until now, at nine existing incinerator sites (including West Palm Beach), operations have expanded, adding nearly 6,000 tons/day (tpd) of new capacity.  In that same time, 74 U.S. incinerators have closed, shutting down nearly 21,000 tpd of capacity.  Another 2,250 tpd incinerator (Florida's North Broward plant) is talking about closing soon for lack of waste to burn, as waste is sent to the new 3,000 tpd West Palm Beach incinerator one county north, to the displeasure of West Palm Beach residents.

Many hundreds of proposed incinerators have been stopped in the past few decades as well.  One compilation shows that 280 incinerator proposals were defeated in the decade between 1985 and 1994, and that trend has continued to this day, with several proposals defeated just last year.

At the industry's peak in 1991, there were 187 commercial trash incinerators in the U.S.  There are now about 80, with two more looking to close in the next year.

Waste Management, Inc., the world's largest waste corporation, has moved away from incineration.  Last year, they sold off their Wheelabrator subsidiary, abandoning their role as the nation's second largest operator of conventional waste incinerators.  Several experimental types of incinerators, using gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc technologies have failed to prove capable of commercial operation.  WMI invested in a variety of these companies in recent years just to abandon them as well.

With this industry, there is a lot more "blowing smoke" than actual fire.  The plan in Baltimore for the nation's largest incinerator is permitted, but not actually "being built" as the article portrayed.  Incinerators supposedly "under consideration" in four other states aren't anything likely to happen, either, and are largely unknown to state permitting agencies.  One of those states, Virginia, confirmed that they have no active applications for incinerators anywhere in the state.  However, an informal proposal for one was "shot down due to public opposition" last year, after a year-long battle.

The same happened in Frederick, Maryland last November after a decade-long fight with the community caused the incinerator deal to crumble, even after all permits were issued.  The deal began to unravel when the partner county paid $1 million to back out of the contract thanks to their fiscal conservatism.  If only Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's leaders listened in 2003 when I warned them that the city faced bankruptcy if they invested in rebuilding their incinerator.  Eight years later, after listening to their consultants instead, the city was the largest at the time to seek bankruptcy protection.

Sadly, this is not so unusual, as incinerators must lock in energy sales and long-term waste supply contracts, even if construction is privately financed.  Local governments signing long-term waste contracts often get locked into bad deals where they pay too much for too long and are punished if they reduce waste or recycle more, since they still pay fees on waste they no longer supply to the incinerator.

Trash incineration is more expensive than landfilling which the waste industry (even the trash incinerator industry's trade association) has publicly admitted.  Of course, incinerators do not avoid landfilling as they need landfills for their ash.  Every 100 tons of waste burned results in 30 tons of ash that ends up landfilled.

Two studies done for the Energy Information Administration since 2010 show that trash incineration is also the most expensive way to make electricity.  It's the most expensive to build, and also the most expensive to operate and maintain – even though they get paid to take waste as their fuel, while other (non-renewable) energy sources pay for their fuel.

The industry avoids using the unpopular 'i' word, preferring to refer to incinerators as energy facilities, even though they're primarily waste facilities.  If you compare their pollution to other energy facilities, you find that they're far dirtier than coal power plants.  To make the same amount of energy as a coal plant, the average trash incinerator in the U.S. releases 28 times as much dioxin (the most toxic man-made chemicals known to science), 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide (impacting global warming), three times as much nitrogen oxides (impacting asthma), six times as much mercury and nearly six times as much lead (both affecting the brain and more), and 70% more sulfur dioxides (affecting breathing).  Incinerators are this much more polluting even though the average incinerator was built in 1987 and the average coal plant was built in 1968, with fewer pollution controls.

A state-wide analysis by New York's environmental agency, found that the state's ten trash incinerators put out 14 times more mercury per unit of energy produced than the state's eight coal plants, and more mercury in total, even though the coal plants are much larger.

Recycling is stagnating where political leaders haven't really been leaders.  However, in over 7,000 communities around the country, people are using Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) programs where they pay less if they throw out less trash (also known as "pay as you throw").  Just like any other utility, if you pay for how much you use, you'll use less.  Communities switching to these programs find immediate reductions in trash generation of 44% on average.  Over 80% of Wisconsin communities and over half of Iowa communities use it.  These programs are now mandatory in Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and are being considered in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Using the most expensive and polluting way to reduce tons going to landfills by 70% makes no sense, when some cities are already showing the way with "zero waste" plans that divert 70% or more from landfills and incinerators through source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.  In doing so, they create 10 times as many jobs as landfills or incinerators.

Mike Ewall, Esq. is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national organization supporting communities threatened by polluting energy and waste facilities.

EPA Gives Green Light to Biomass Carbon Pollution | January issue of The Biomass Monitor

You can run, but you can’t hide...the January issue of The Biomass Monitor — the nation’s leading publication covering the health and environmental impacts of bioenergy — is here!

Inside this issue, “EPA Gives Green Light to Biomass Carbon Pollution”:

- EPA Chooses Politics Over Public Interest on Energy Policy

Biomass Industry Plays With Fire, Gets Burned

Biofuel Hell

...and more!

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

Subscribe to monthly email issues of The Biomass Monitor!




CONFERENCE CALL: How to Beat Back the Biomass Industry…and Win!

The Biomass Monitor & Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign - January Conference Call
Thursday, January 15, 2015 at 3pm PST / 4 MT / 6 ET
Guest Speakers: Gretchen Brewer and Elaine Bailey, PTAirWatchers
When Port Townsend Paper proposed a biomass power facility for their paper mill in 2010, PT AirWatchers director Gretchen Brewer and board member Elaine Bailey worried that their region’s air quality—already compromised by the paper mill—would only get worse.
PTAirWatchers worked to educate the public on the many health and environmental impacts of biomass energy and filed a legal suit challenging the facility’s air permit. After many years and three legal challenges that went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, Port Townsend Paper canceled the project in the spring of 2014.
Listen to Gretchen and Elaine’s story and join us for conversation and questions on Thursday, January 15, 2015 at 3pm PST / 4 MT / 6 ET.
Email thebiomassmonitor [at] for call in number and access code. 

Concerns About Syracuse, NY Trash Incinerator Pollution

- January 6, 2015, LocalSYR

It’s the next step to allow trash from Cortland County to be brought into Onondaga County’s Waste to Energy facility.

Both counties’ legislatures this week have held public hearings on the so called “Ash for Trash” plan.

For two decades now Onondaga County's Waste to Energy facility has been burning trash only from Onondaga County.

The legislature is now considering changing that law to allow for trash to come in from Cortland County.

The the extra trash would allow the incinerator to meet the minimum levels of trash it handles as established in a new contract agreed to between OCRRA and the plant operator, Covanta.

Largest Ground Source Heat Pump Installation in UK Poultry Sector

- September 1, 2015, Farming Life

Renewable specialist TGE Group has been awarded a £1m contract to install a 1,300kW heat pump for a Shropshire poultry farmer to provide heat and cooling across four new poultry units.

On completion, the system will be the largest Ground Source Heat Pump installation in the UK poultry sector.

The project, currently in build, will be managed alongside the construction of the units to ensure the four, 50,000 bird capacity sheds are complete for late spring. The installation of five Geo Qube Ground Source Heat Pumps, manufactured specifically for the poultry industry, will deliver reactive heating and cooling to each building.

Nova Scotia Power Biomass in Cape Breton Raising Green Concerns

- by Aaron Beswick, January 9, 2015, The Chronicle Herald

About 2,790 hectares.

That’s a rough estimate of how much woodland will need to be cut annually to feed Nova Scotia Power’s biomass boiler at Point Tupper.

“It seems that more of the fears are coming true than the benefits we had envisioned from that facility,” said Kari Easthouse, manager of the Cape Breton Private Land Partnership.

Foresters in northern Nova Scotia are warning that the wood being burned at Nova Scotia Power’s new biomass boiler may be green, but the electricity coming out of it isn’t.

New Biomass Power Facility on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula?

- Sam Ali, January 8, 2015, ABC 10

The Keweenaw Renewable Energy Coalition is one step closer to helping bring a solution to the energy crisis in the Copper Country.

Last night, KREC gathered experts in the logging and timber industries for a biomass working session to discuss the future of a possible 11-megawatt biomass electric plant.They were joined via Skype by Asko Ojaniemi, the head of an energy efficiency solutions company in Finland. The plan is to bring in his team to design a plant that matches the needs of the area.

KREC’s treasurer says one of the bigger decisions will be the location of the plant.

Media Helps Biomass Industry Spread Wildfire Hysteria

-  by Melissa Santos, January 4, 2015, The News Tribune

[Yet another mainstream media article mouthing biomass industry talking points and ignoring the science showing no link between logging and the prevention of large wildfires. -Josh]

Ann Stanton credits a state program with saving her home from the worst wildfire in Washington’s history.

Despite her property being in the path of the Carlton Complex fire, which scorched about 256,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties last summer, Stanton’s home and the trees around it survived with minimal damage.

It wasn’t just luck. A year earlier, Stanton and her husband worked with the state Department of Natural Resources to thin the trees on their 20-acre property, reducing the wildfire’s ability to spread.

“It made all the difference in the world for us,” Stanton said last month. “The house was completely spared. If you could ignore the black trunks on some of the ponderosa pines, you could imagine the fire had never happened.”

DNR officials think thinning and restoring more forests on public and private lands throughout the state could help prevent another wildfire season like 2014, which was the most destructive in state history.

Biomass Facility Fires a Regular Occurrence

-  by Josh Schlossberg, December 29, 2014, Vail Daily

Omitted from coverage of the fire at the Gypsum biomass facility (“Fire ignites at Gypsum biomass power plant,” Dec. 18) is the fact that these blazes are regular occurrences, and the biomass industry has opposed tighter safety regulations, due to the added expense.

As of December 2014, fires and/or explosions have occurred at 25 biomass facilities, with documentation compiled at

Even when not on fire, biomass facilities emit disease-causing air pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and dioxin. Add to this equation the carbon dioxide emissions from cutting and burning trees for energy, and the forest and watershed impacts of logging, biomass energy takes a greater toll on public health and the environment than is typically reported.

Whether you’re a biomass booster or a biomass buster, it’s in all of our best interest to be transparent about the footprint of energy sources, so we can weigh the perceived benefits against the potential impacts.

Citizens Urge EPA and Congress to Choose Public Interest Over Politics on Energy Policy

- Mike Ewall and Samantha Chirillo

In December, 900 Americans, including 100 organizations across the U.S. collectively voiced their concerns about major parts of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, in comments submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Citizens specifically asked the EPA to:

·      set more aggressive targets and address environmental justice

·      not encourage more fracking (gas) or nuclear energy, and close the methane loophole

·      disallow a shift from coal to biomass and trash burning and close the biogenic CO2 loophole

The EPA released their revised framework in November 2014, shortly before the comment deadline on the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.  In a memo dated November 19, 2014, EPA announced its decision to virtually ignore the carbon dioxide emissions of biomass energy in its revised Framework for Assessing Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources. After years of urging to accurately account for these emissions, grassroots advocates across the U.S. contend that the EPA’s biogenic carbon loophole will open the door to an onslaught of incineration that will harm public health, exacerbate runaway climate change, and degrade our nation’s forests and drinking watersheds.

Ignoring its own Scientific Advisory Board, the EPA has demonstrated that politics trump science when it comes to climate change. Sound science has shown that biomass energy facilities are not “carbon neutral” and emit 50% more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than a coal-fired facility.  Trash incineration emits 2.5 times as much CO2 as coal per unit of energy produced.

Sound science has also shown that a biomass energy facility emits higher levels of dangerous pollutants, such as particulate matter, per unit of energy produced than a coal-fired facility, harming especially children and the elderly.  In the case of trash incineration, it's far more polluting than coal by every available measure.

This new EPA policy allows CO2 emissions from burning waste to be completely ignored.  This would include incineration of trash, food waste, animal waste (such as poultry litter), sewage sludge and construction/demolition waste.  This is justified on the assumption that these wastes would cause more global warming emissions if landfilled, as if conventional landfilling is the only alternative.

The new EPA policy, still largely uncertain, will at best ignore CO2 emissions from forest and agriculture-derived biomass and at worst provide political cover for the destruction of the public’s natural resources in the most vulnerable states. Each state gets to choose whether it will address these sources in its compliance plan to meet Clean Power Plan goals. The memo states that “. . . the EPA expects that states' reliance specifically on sustainably-derived agricultural- and forest-derived feedstocks may also be an approvable element of their compliance plans.” Rather than specifying the requirements to pass a sustainability test, “the agency expects to recognize the biogenic CO2 emissions and climate policy benefits of waste-derived and certain forest-derived industrial byproduct feedstocks, based on the conclusions supported by a variety of technical studies, including the revised framework” and consultations with various stakeholders. This could include industry, industry-funded scientists, and environmental groups funded to make deals with the industry.


“Government agencies already work with industry, biased scientists, and compromised environmental groups to label destructive public forest logging as ‘sustainable.’ What’s worse with this new EPA policy is that it falsely portrays this logging as beneficial for the climate, and now the states most politically dominated by the timber industry can get more money to log more of our forests without taxing the multinational private forest owners,” explains Roy Keene, public interest forester for 40 years and Executive Director of Our Forests, based in Oregon, the state with the largest timber harvest volume.


The EPA recognizes that some states, like Oregon, already have “sustainable” forest management plans without critically evaluating from even a carbon accounting standpoint what is “sustainable” or “sustained yield,” as forest management plans call it. The O&C Act of 1937 mandated that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sustain the whole forest and its multiple uses by the public -- the waterways, soils, recreation value, and timber harvest – although never implemented as such. The National Forest Management Act mandates that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) calculate non-declining yield (a.k.a. “sustained yield”) levels from the sale of timber from each forest.  However, the mandates and the reality are totally different. Already an increasing trend not only among state agencies, but also in the U.S. Forest Service, managers are hiding data on timber harvest and soil and telling nonprofits they’ll have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get data.


Over time, these agencies, including the USFS, have shifted from using the board foot to the inappropriate cubic foot as a unit of measurement yet still claim a “sustainable yield” of timber. The cubic foot is adequate when measuring the entire volume of the tree. However, the board foot, used to measure just the wood that can be made into lumber, is generally considered the more honest unit of measure of harvest volume from a forest when comparing among trees of different sizes or stands of different ages. A larger tree without defect has more board feet per cubic foot that can be made into lumber than a smaller tree. The larger tree historically has had a higher price per cubic foot than a smaller tree, although biomass energy market is now increasing the value of that smaller tree that is meanwhile less suitable for use in construction. Agencies using cubic feet overinflate the harvest volume of younger trees to justify replacing one slower-growing older tree with six faster-growing seedlings. Even if the cubic feet in a logged stand increases, the quantity of wood in that stand that can be made into a board foot of dimensional lumber declines.


The total carbon stored also declines then, especially considering that half of the carbon in Pacific Northwest forests is stored in the soil and largely lost upon logging. In his book Reforming the Forest Service, Randal O’Toole predicted that board foot sales from national forests would decline 30% as long as the USFS reports cubic feet while making the bogus sustainable yield justification. Of course, the market for chips has increased all the while. Drawing a flawed comparison using cubic feet ignores both the longer-term economic and ecosystem benefits of an older, biodiverse stand over a young plantation. When an agency changes the unit of measurement it uses, one can no longer validly compare its harvest data before and after the change.


Moreover, existing state plans are complex, involving multiple levels of government and stakeholders and took years to create. Will the EPA force any state to revise its forest management plan when it was partly written and claimed to be “sustainable” by scientists at the state’s leading agriculture university (e.g. Oregon State University)? States without existing plans can simply “encourage participation in sustainable forest management programs developed by third-party forestry and/or environmental entities,” the EPA recognizes. However, the way the system works currently, forest certifiers have a financial incentive to certify, and certified forests are not independently and credibly monitored, according to Keene. There are no common minimum sustainability standards among certifying bodies, which focus on process, not on outcomes. Consumers do not have adequate information. University of Alberta policy analysts have recognized such market failures of certification and that, “given the drawbacks associated with certification, there may be more appropriate alternatives” for “the elusive goal of sustainable forest management.”


The “environmental entities” may be logging selectively instead of clearcutting but are logging a much larger area and destroying the soil using a mechanized approach rather than creating jobs and are not independently monitored. There is little to no citizen involvement or oversight of either forest certification schemes or logging operations contracted by or consented to by environmental groups.  If “sustainable forest management” is so “sustainable,” why the lack of transparency and accountability?


The timber and bioenergy industries and their politicians, leading proponents of the EPA’s biogenic carbon loophole, also promise that more logging and burning will yield more jobs and revenue. However, based on Oregon State Employment Department and U.S. Forest Service data, dramatic increases in the timber harvest volume from the end of the 2009 recession and 2013 are not accompanied by proportional increases in jobs or revenue. Keene argues that cutting and burning more of the public’s carbon-storing forested watersheds at a time when chip and pellet exports to fuel facilities in Europe and Asia are at an all time high is making the U.S. a resource colony. If Obama and Congress want to increase jobs and bolster rural economies, why don’t they stop the rising export of raw logs and chips from public forests and tax private exports?


At least half of the harvest volume from privately owned forests in Oregon is already exported to Asia in one form or another, untaxed. The southeastern U.S. has been the leading export region of forest biomass to European countries that similarly do not count carbon dioxide emitted from biomass energy facilities. In early November, citizens in Chesapeake, VA, protested the climate impact and degradation to their own environment from biomass export.


“We’re alarmed that the Obama Administration’s climate action in the form of this EPA decision will actually worsen climate change, further drain local economies and disproportionately impact the poorest Americans,” said Chirillo, M.S., M.P.A., Steering Committee member of the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign.


Chirillo explains that the timing of the EPA’s decision is not surprising, as the Subcommittee on International Trade, chaired by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, and others in Congress put the finishing touches on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the newest NAFTA-derived trade deal. “This trade deal, combined with the EPA’s legitimizing burning forests for energy essentially greases the skids for more of the public’s forest resources and jobs to be shipped overseas, contributing to climate change while degrading public health and food security at home. Hardly sustainable.”

Although U.S. Senator Wyden’s O&C bill to increase logging on public forests in Oregon ultimately stalled, the EPA decision gives similar or even more destructive logging legislation by Republican majorities in both houses new political cover.

“This kind of legislation is de facto privatization. It allows more industry manipulation with even less public involvement, basic accounting, or scrutiny of forest practices that contribute to climate change. The water that flows out of the forest irrigates farms. More logging and biomass extraction will exacerbate the drying effects of climate change,” forester Keene warns.


Forest legislation in Congress generally does not consider already degraded watersheds and does not account for the economic effects on agricultural irrigation or domestic water supply. In 2014, the National Weather Service rated drought in Oregon as “severe” and neighboring California, a top food-producing state, as “extreme.” Currently, most states do not require that new bioenergy facility owners show they can continuously source enough biomass to keep producing energy, let alone leave water supplies intact, before state agencies under the authority of the EPA hand out pollution permits. How can states or the EPA claim "sustainable forest management" without supply assessment?


Subscribe to Energy Justice Network RSS