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Spatial Justice Tests

- by Aaron Kreider, Energy Justice Network 
 
One of the main goals of Energy Justice Network's Justice Map project is to demonstrate the role that income and race play in the siting of dirty facilities. You can use Justice Map (by clicking on Advanced Mode) to analyze the race and income of people who live within, say, 1 mile of a facility and compare it to those who live further.
 
If you have a set of facilities (or anything else) that you want to analyze, we have also created a Spatial Justice Test. You can apply this test to our data set of power plants, and answer questions like "Who lives near operating trash incinerators?" Or you can use the test on your own data set.
 

Waste Done Right

- by Ruth Tyson, Energy Justice Network
 
In 2012, Americans disposed of 251 million tons of trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Story of Stuff Project neatly lays out the way materials move through our economy from extraction to production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Most consumers don’t think beyond the “consumption” step. Once the undesirable mess is tossed from households, it might be considered “out of sight, out of mind” as long as it’s not seen or smelled. But where does it all go? Where should it all go?
 
With the finite space for landfills running out, discovering ways to deal with our waste problem is imperative. The trash incineration (a.k.a. “waste-to-energy” or WTE) industry would like to persuade the public that they're the answer. However, incinerators cause more problems than they solve, and are the most expensive way to manage waste or to create energy. Incineration reduces every 100 tons of trash to 30 tons of toxic ash that must be disposed of landfills.
 

Study: Thinning Forests for Bioenergy Can Worsen Climate

 

A new study out of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon concludes that selectively logging or “thinning” forests for bioenergy can increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.

The study, “Thinning Combined With Biomass Energy Production May Increase, Rather Than Reduce, Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” by D.A. DellaSala and M. Koopman, challenges bioenergy and timber industry assertions that logging forests will aid in the fight against climate change.

DellaSala and Koopman also refute assumptions that wildfires are bigger or more severe than in the past, citing multiple studies showing that the occurrence of wildfire has actually “changed little from historical (early European settlement) times.”

The Western Governor’s Association has stated that 10.6 million acres of western forests are available for “hazardous fuel reduction.” Yet, instead of instead of the build up of “fuel” (aka small trees and understory plants) being the main driver of large wildfire, the study authors blame climate, namely drought and high temperatures, explaining that, “during severe weather events, even thinned sites will burn.”

Instead of preventing large wildfires, the study argues that thinning can increase the chance of severe fire by opening the forest canopy which can dry out the forest, leaving flammable slash piles on the ground, and allowing winds to penetrate the previously sheltered stands, potentially spreading wildfire. Post-fire “salvage” logging is also thought to increase the risk of a re-burn.  

Carbon emissions from wildfire have long been an argument to log forests, in an effort to harness energy from trees that may burn at some point anyway. Yet findings show that after a fire the majority of the carbon remains in dead trees, with severe fires that kill most trees in the area emitting 5-30% of stored carbon. Severe fires account for 12-14% of the area burned in large fires. 

Even in the cases where thinning would be effective at stopping wildfire--typically small fires of limited threat to public safety--the study cites computer simulations estimating a 5-8% chance of a thinned parcel experiencing fire within the first twenty years, when fuels are lowest. The chance of encountering severe fire is 2%.

DellaSala and Koopman also urge an accurate carbon accounting of forest bioenergy, cautioning that the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning woody biomass is “often comparable to coal and much larger than that of oil and natural gas due to inefficiencies in burning wood for fuel compared to more energy- dense fossil fuels.”

In the rare cases in which a thinned forest is allowed to grow back without repeated logging, the several decades over which forests could reabsorb carbon “conflicts with current policy imperatives requiring drastic cuts in emissions over the near term.”

The study warns about “large-scale clearing of forests” at a time when natural forests are needed to buffer the planet against runaway climate change.  

"Woody biomass," said DellaSalla in a December 17 phone interview, "almost never pencils out as an efficient renewable energy source."  

Biomass Power Facilities Idle for Months

 

One of biomass energy’s main selling points is that it’s a baseload source of energy available 24/7, unlike solar and wind. Despite these promises--and hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, grants and loans--several biomass power facilities across the U.S. have been sitting idle for months at a time, thanks to fires, equipment failure, and competition from cheaper energy sources.

Eagle Valley Clean Energy – Gypsum, Colorado

Eagle Valley Clean Energy, an 11.5-megawatt biomass power facility in Gypsum, Colorado began operations in December 2013, only to have its conveyor belt catch fire in December 2014.

Despite assurances from facility spokespeople that they’d resume operations within a few months, the facility is still offline as of November 2015.

While Eagle Valley’s attorney recently said they’d be up and running again by the end of the year, the Town of Gypsum might not let that happen, with town officials pointing out that the facility had been operating without a required certificate of occupancy, according to Vail Daily.

Eagle Valley has received $40 million in loan guarantees from the USDA, a portion of an annual $12.5 million matching payment for feedstock transportation from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (part of the Farm Bill), and a $250,000 biomass utilization grant.

Gainesville Renewable Energy Center – Gainesville, Florida

The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC), a 100-megawatt biomass power facility in Gainesville, Florida, started burning wood chips for electricity on December 2013.

In August 2015, a lightning strike caused the facility to shut down temporarily, and when it became operational again, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) decided not to bring it back online. Instead, GRU has relied on power from Deerhaven Generating Station, a coal plant that is “more economic than GREC’s facility,” according to Margaret Crawford, GRU Communications Director.

GRU pays about $39 per megawatt for electricity from GREC, while GRU’s other facilities generate electricity between $22 and $36 per megawatt, according to the Gainesville Sun.

On November 4, Deerhaven shut down due to a leak in a steam-generating tube, forcing GRU to bring GREC back online temporarily. GREC was taken offline again on November 11, according to David Warm, Marketing and Communications for GRU. 

Nacogdoches Power – Nacogdoches Texas

Nacogdoches Power, a 100-megawatt biomass power facility owned by Southern Power Company in Nacogdoches, Texas, went online in June 2012, but was not operational for a total of 17 months, as of July 2015 (the most recent data by the Energy Information Administration).

Austin Energy purchases all of the power from the facility, which adds $2 a month to customers’ utility bills, according to the Statesman.

Austin Energy acknowledges the “disproportionate expense” of the facility, and doesn’t plan to extend the twenty year contract.

Aspen Biomass – Lufkin, Texas

Aspen Biomass, a 50-megawatt biomass power facility owned by NRG Energy Services in Lufkin, Texas came online in September 2011, sitting idle a total of 16 months over the next four years.

The facility shutdown was blamed on “market economics,” according to Biomass Magazine.

WE Energies – Rothschild, Wisconsin

WE Energies and Domtar Corp’s 50-megawatt biomass power facility opened in Rothschild, Wisconsin in November 2013.

After generating no electricity in October 2014, it was taken offline from December 2014 through May 2015 for repairs on the electrical generating steam turbine and leaks in the condenser tubes. During its first full year, it was operational only 16% of the time, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. During this time, the facility used more energy than it generated.

“To run the plant would have been more costly than other options like running our natural gas plant or buying power on the market,” We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said, according to Midwest Energy News.

The facility has reportedly been operational again since June 2015. 

AUDIO: Energy's Water Footprint in the Western Drought

Drought in the western U.S. is in the news every day, yet most media coverage ignores the impact from water withdrawals for industrial power facilities. While municipal and agricultural use are major drains on limited water resources, so too are biomass, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power facilities. 
 
On August 20, EJN spoke with Stacy Tellinghuisen, Senior Energy/Water Policy Analyst with Western Resource Advocates, about the findings of her report, "Every Drop Counts: Valuing the Water Used to Generate Electricity," discussing the water demands of electricity generating power facilities and lower-impact alternatives.
 

If You Build It, They Will Cut

 

Generating biomass energy doesn’t result in more logging, according to the biomass industry, whose spokespersons claim facilities only make use of “waste” wood already coming from existing logging operations.

Ron Kotrba, Senior Editor for Pellet Mill Magazine, wrote in the May/June 2015 issue that biomass is the “most unlikely of the forest products to drive the general practice of forestry in the U.S.”

Kotrba believes that the notion of biomass “driving forestry practices in the U.S. is a purposefully deceptive scare tactic used by some in an attempt to influence the perceptions of policy makers and the public.”

Chris Matera, director of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a grassroots forest advocacy group based in Northampton, has long warned that “wood fueled biomass energy will add tremendous pressure, and further degrade already stressed forests.”

“Existing wood-fueled biomass facilities already cut and burn enormous amounts of whole trees for fuel,” said Matera, “and any new facilities will only add more logging pressure.” 

Clearly, opinions differ among the biomass industry and its critics, leaving the question: do biomass energy facilities increase logging?

Federal and state agency personnel, along with members of the biomass industry, have made statements demonstrating that the construction of a bioenergy facility is likely to result in a local increase in logging, including in National Forests, by opening an additional market for the sale of trees that might have otherwise been left in the forest to grow.

Brad Flatten, Stewardship and Timber Sales Specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, was quoted in “Wood Supply Assessment for Commercial-Scale Biomass Power Cogeneration and Biomass Utilization Projects in Central Washington,” saying the establishment of biomass energy facilities in Washington state “may provide a market for small-diameter material typically generated from fuels treatment…and potentially increase the number of treatment acres.”

In other words, controversial “fuel reduction” logging projects, which many scientific studies suggest aren’t effective at reducing the likelihood of a large wildfire, may expand in scale if a biomass energy facility will purchase the trees.

Biomass energy, said Eric Lamfers of the Washington Department of Natural Resources in the “Wood Supply” document, “affords treatment of areas that normally could not be treated without market-based opportunities.” This statement also makes it evident that some Washington forests would be left unlogged without the existence of biomass energy facilities.

Wind River Biomass, a combined heat and power biomass energy facility proposed for Stevenson, Washington, plans to source trees from the nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

A biomass gasification project in North Fork, California that would burn trees to create electricity, heat and biochar would also increase logging, including in the Sierra National Forest, according to a May 6, 2015 article in the Sierra Star.

Jim Branham, executive officer for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, one of the entities behind the North Fork facility, was quoted as saying that biomass projects such as his are “key to increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration and protecting our forests and communities from large, damaging wildfires.” Once again, a biomass energy facility is acting as a driver for more “fuel reduction” logging projects.

While some biomass energy facilities spur logging in anticipation of the natural process of wildfire, other facilities trigger logging after a burn. For example, a new biomass facility in Kauai drove the cutting and burning of 15,000 tons of pine and eucalyptus trees in Kokee that wouldn’t have been logged otherwise, according to March 5, 2015 article in the Washington Times.

An April 4, 2015 article in Timberline reported that Watertown, New York-based wood chipping company, Pala Wood Service Company, “had all but stopped chipping [trees] due to a lack of a customer base for that product.” Yet, according to Pala Wood’s owner, Bruce Strough, the recent opening of ReEnergy Black River, a 60-megawatt biomass power facility in Fort Drum, “represented an opportunity to get back into the market.”

As more biomass energy facilities are built across the U.S., including ones in close proximity to National Forests, only time will tell whether we’ll see a resulting uptick in logging proposals, as biomass opponents warn. But, if statements by those working on the ground to advance bioenergy are accurate, more logging specifically to fuel these facilities is probable.  

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?

Remembering Marvin Wheeler

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network 
 
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.

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