Garbage In, Garbage Out

- by Mercedes Brugh

One of the unanswered questions about the pyrolyzation garbage-to-electricity proposal for Logansport, Indiana has been about emissions.

No proof has been offered about emissions. We have been told that the Pyrolyzer plant will have to follow the “strictest emissions rules,” but that is no comfort. Indiana consistently ranks among the worst of the states for pollution.

We have heard the pyrolyzation theory and that the syngas has been approved for use in adapted natural gas turbines. This is promising but should not be confused with proof that the plant’s emissions will be safe.

The rules for a pyrolyzation plant are the same as they are for a mass-burn incinerator. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Union treat staged incinerators—such as pyrolyzation, gasification, and plasma arc—the same as mass-burn incinerators. That means that our Pyrolyzer plant would be allowed the same percentage of pollutants in its emissions as a mass-burn incinerator.

Consider also the volume of emissions coming from processing 6,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste and tires, more than the largest incinerator in the United States today. We should have proof of which pollutants, the percentage, and finally the total amount of significant pollutants that will be allowed into the air, land, and water.

Garbage in, garbage out. Pollution controls typically capture and concentrate some of the pollution, but that is not the whole story. It’s important to provide for safe disposal of filters, sludge, and ash. What happens to the water that is used to “scrub” the syngas? How is it purified before it is released and where are the independent lab tests showing how effective that purification is?

Most of the information I have found on emissions from pyrolysis plants has been from the owners themselves. A recent EPA study and a couple of European studies complained that they do not have independent data to work with. But there is at least one example of independent testing for dioxin on a pyrolysis plant.

What does dioxin have to do with pyrolyzation? Pyrolyzation supporters will tell you “nothing.” The theory is that their process avoids creation of dioxin because of the specific temperature range that they maintain. But an independent lab showed that the pilot pyrolysis plant in Romoland, California did emit dioxins; in fact, more dioxin than the two aging mass-burn incinerators in the Los Angeles area.

Why should we care? Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known. It is the stuff in Agent Orange. A leading source for dioxin is mass-burn incineration of municipal solid waste. From there it can be inhaled, and of course workers in the plant and neighbors are most exposed. It can also be taken up by nearby crops, and from there it works its way up the food chain to our dinner tables. Food is the way most dioxin enters most people’s bodies. 

A draft report released for public comment in September 1994 by the EPA asserts that there is no “safe” level of exposure to dioxin, but levels of dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals have been found in the general US population that are “at or near levels associated with adverse health effects.”

Incineration supporters will tell you that they have continuous monitoring for pollutants. What they leave out is that the EPA requires continuous monitoring of only a handful of pollutants. Some of the most toxic pollutants, including dioxin, are typically tested only yearly, if at all. This is puzzling because the technology exists to continually monitor a long list of pollutants including toxic metals, acid gases, particulate matter, and dioxins.

All municipal waste incinerators in the Flanders portion of Belgium are now required to use continuous monitors for dioxin and have demonstrated substantial reductions in dioxin released to air. The Walloon region of Belgium has shown that, if the operator of the plant has real-time feedback via continuous monitoring, the operator will keep dioxin emissions lower. Philadelphia passed an ordinance requiring Continuous Emissions Monitors. Logansport could accomplish the same thing in the contract with Pyrolyzer, requiring continuous monitoring of important pollutants.

There are many pollutants of concern, not just dioxin. If we are going to have a Pyrolyzer plant, we should have proof—not just promise—of what pollutants we will be exposed to. We should know that air, water, and land emissions are being controlled.

Logansport should require tighter rules than the EPA (and its proxy Indiana Department of Environmental Management) require: continuous monitoring for all significant pollutants.

Mercedes Brugh lives in Logansport, Indiana