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Why Communities Across America Are Pushing to Close Waste Incinerators

They can be a threat to public health, and a poor solution to larger environmental problems. Organizers from Baltimore to Detroit to Los Angeles are working for a future without them.
Smoke from incinerator

In 1986, when the Detroit waste-to-energy incinerator first opened, activists scaled its enormous smokestack and hung a peace symbol on it in protest. When the same kind of incinerator opened in Commerce, California, in 1989, protesters chained themselves to the facility's smokestack.

Thirty years later, the communities that live in their shadow are still protesting these facilities. Built to last about 30 years, many of America's 86 waste-to-energy incinerators are reaching the end of their lifespans—and their contracts with the cities that house them—and they face costly upgrades if they are to remain operational.

"Cities are at a critical stage right now," says Ahmina Maxey, the United States and Canada coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. "Do they invest millions more into ancient technologies, or take those millions of dollars and invest them into strong zero-waste systems?"

Grassroots organizations in some cities–including Breathe Free Detroit, Southern California's East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Baltimore's United Workers Association—want to make sure that cities choose zero waste. Working together as the Failing Incinerators Project, these groups are putting pressure on local politicians, along with the companies that operate the incinerators, to get these facilities shut down.

The groups' organizers come from, and work in, what United Workers' Destiny Watford describes as "communities that have been disinvested in, that have been ignored and neglected for generations."

"[These organizers] have been dealing with the health consequences of living next to this industry, and it feels like it's normal," she says. Watford and her fellow organizers are working to disrupt what she calls "the trance" of accepting life next to an incinerator, with its attendant threats to the environment, city finances, and residents' health.


In the 1980s and early '90s, when most operational incinerators in the U.S. were built, the technology behind solar and wind energy was in its infancy. Coal accounted for around 60 percent of America's electricity production, down to about 30 percent in 2017. Climate change wasn't widely considered an urgent problem, and people didn't talk much about recycling. Politicians, concerned about diminishing landfill space and the rising costs of fossil fuels, seized upon waste-to-energy as a solution.

These facilities burn municipal waste at temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, generating steam that drives an electric turbine. Leftover ash is sent to a landfill or used as paving material. But only one new incinerator has opened in the past 20 years, as construction costs and public opposition made the projects impracticable. In Detroit and Baltimore, city contracts with the incinerators expire in 2021; in Long Beach, California, in 2024.

Proponents of waste-to-energy facilities say that these incinerators help fight climate change by diverting trash from greenhouse gas-emitting landfills and that modern pollution controls prevent the facilities from harming nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies WTE incineration as a renewable energy sourcereported a major decrease in incinerators' emissions of some pollutants like mercury, dioxins, and nitrogen oxide between 1990 and 2005. And the steam the facilities generate can be used, as is done in Detroit and Baltimore, for heating.

Some advocates even push back against labeling the facilities "incinerators," a word that conjures images of dirty smoke belching into the sky. Detroit Renewable Energy, which operates the Detroit facility, describes it as a "modern waste-to-energy facility that generates renewable energy in the form of electricity and steam by safely processing municipal solid waste."

A 2016 EPA study found that WTE incinerators produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than landfills, America's third-largest emitters of methane. (Methane is 28 to 36 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) Paul Gilman, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer of the major waste-to-energy incineration company Covanta, told Scientific American in 2011 that every ton of incinerated waste prevents another ton of greenhouse gas emissions.

Incinerators' opponents counter that the real choice isn't between landfills and incineration—it's between incineration and a radically different approach centered on reducing waste in the first place; upping recycling, composting, and reuse rates; and investing in solar and wind power. They take particular issue with the notion that waste-to-energy incineration is clean and safe for area residents.

'Assaulted Every Day With Toxic Pollution'

Thanks to new rules implemented by the EPA in the 1990s, incinerators are much cleaner than they once were. But older facilities can struggle to comply with today's emissions limits.

In the last five years, Detroit's facility has exceeded its permitted emissions 750 times. Baltimore's aging facility emits nitrogen oxide—a pollutant linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses—at twice the rate of Maryland's newer and more recently retrofitted incinerator.

Incinerators are some communities' largest emitters of mercury, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants linked to harmful health impacts—including asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, pre-term births, and even cancer. Communities with incinerators are also likely to house a disproportionate number of other polluting facilities.

Watford says that the communities around Baltimore's incinerator have "a long history with pollution." Thanks to a number of factors—which may include disproportionate exposure to toxins—the area's mostly black residents are expected to die 10 years sooner than residents of the city's more affluent areas. For every 100,000 residents in Baltimore, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 130 die in a given year because of long-term exposure to air pollution. That's the highest rate in the nation.

In Commerce, California, where a waste-to-energy facility was shut down in June of 2018, the community surrounding the incinerator is 95 percent Hispanic, with a median household income of about $42,000. It's home to two major freeways with high levels of truck traffic, the state's largest lead clean-up site, and four rail yards. Angelo Logan, co-founder of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, says that a 2007 study found that the risk of cancer in Commerce is 140 times higher than California's average.

The community is "assaulted every day with toxic pollution," Logan says The area's spike in cancers and respiratory illnesses convinced him to change careers from manufacturing to community organizing. When he asked community members whether environmental pollution had affected them or their families, people "overwhelmingly responded yes." "A number of folks that have now passed identified the incinerator as the cause of their illness," he says.

"For us in Detroit," says KT Andresky, an organizer with Breathe Free Detroit, "[the incinerator] is a textbook case of environmental racism." Over 70 percent of nearby residents are low-income, and the same proportion are people of color. Critics of the facility argue that Detroiters bear the brunt of its odor and emissions, even though most of the trash it processes is trucked in from wealthier, whiter areas like neighboring Oakland County.

Using invoices obtained through a public records request, Nicholas Leonard, a staff attorney at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, estimated that just 22 percent of the waste the facility processes comes from the city. (Detroit Renewable Energy disputes this finding. In an email, it says 73 percent of the trash comes from inside the city of Detroit, and 83 percent from Wayne County.)

The Detroit incinerator isn't required by state or federal regulators to have pollution controls for nitrogen oxide, a gas that increases the risk of respiratory conditions and contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog. Residents are hospitalized for asthma at rates three times the state's average, and those who live in the zip codes next to the incinerator have the highest rates of asthma-related hospitalization in the city.

In a statement emailed to Pacific Standard, Detroit Renewable Energy Chief Operating Officer Carl Lockhart writes: "Protecting the environment and public health is our top responsibility. We adhere to strict state and federal guidelines and utilize constant monitoring to ensure we are meeting and exceeding expectations."

A Just Transition

The groups involved in the Failing Incinerator Project say they're committed to a "just transition" away from incineration, starting with economic disincentivization. A just transition means boosting their cities' recycling and composting efforts to keep un-incinerated trash out of landfills. In Baltimore, for example, a 2014 report found that 82 percent of the city's trash could have been recycled or composted, though only 28 percent of it was that year.

"We have to be building up these zero-waste alternatives," Watford says, "so that when we finally do shut down [the incinerator], we have a zero-waste alternative right there." She cites a youth-led composting initiative out of the Filbert Street Garden, which will receive part of a $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the city of Baltimore. Food waste makes up 21 percent of typical municipal trash.

A just transition also means having a plan for the facility's workers, and the surrounding community, when the facility closes. Maxey contends that 10 jobs in recycling could be created for every job in incineration or landfilling—and that jobs in recycling are less damaging to workers' health.

In Detroit, the area near the incinerator has been slow to attract residents or development, in part because of the "unbearable" odor Andresky says wafts through the neighborhood most days. (It's not just Andresky: The facility received so many odor complaints that it was placed under a consent decree in 2014.) Breathe Free Detroit wants to ensure that, "when that facility closes, after decades of organizing against it, folks aren't gentrified out of their own community," Maxey says.

Putting Pressure on the Incinerators

The organizers have also been putting financial pressure on the incinerators. In Baltimore, United Workers and other environmental groups are pushing the Maryland state legislature to take incineration out of its renewable energy portfolio, which subsidizes the purchase of renewable energy. The Baltimore Sun estimates the Wheelabrator facility has received $10 million worth of subsidies from the program. Last year, the state senate passed such a measure, but it died in the House of Delegates.

Brooke Harper, the Maryland and Washington, D.C., policy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says, "The whole intention of the renewable energy portfolio system was to incentivize new renewable energy sources, clean energy sources, like wind and solar"—rather than facilities like the Wheelabrator incinerator, the city's largest source of air pollution.

The efforts of Maryland-based groups are informed by the work of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in California, which recently helped defeat a measure offering renewable energy tax credits to incinerators. Without those subsidies, and unable to negotiate a favorable new purchase agreement with electricity supplier Southern California Edison, the Commerce facility hit what Logan described as a "fiscal cliff," and closed.

"If subsidies are not going to the incinerator," Watford says, "it puts the city in a really tough spot. Does the city have to pay the difference, or do they embrace these zero-waste alternatives and create a new path forward?"

United Workers and others have advocated for stricter nitrogen oxide emissions limits for Wheelabrator. Thanks in part to these efforts, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in September asking the Maryland Department of Energy–which regulates the facility's emissions–to do just that. If adopted, the new limits might require the facility to install expensive state-of-the-art pollution controls.

Under current regulations, Wheelabrator is allowed to emit up to 205 ppm of nitrogen oxide. But the city council has requested that the figure be cut to at most 150 ppm, or, ideally, to 45 ppm to match what would likely be the limit for a new incinerator. The marketing manager for Wheelabrator told the Baltimore Brew that complying with the proposed rules would cost the facility $1.6 million over the first three years, and $400,000 annually after that.

The city council has also requested a feasibility study on installing state-of-the-art pollution controls. At a 2017 Maryland Department of the Environment stakeholders meeting, Timothy Porter, Wheelabrator's director of air quality programs, maintained that it wasn't possible to install such controls in the incinerator's existing space. But two engineers—one employed by the Environmental Integrity Project, one a consultant for their partner organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—say that they have found no technical barriers.

If required to install the controls, Porter said, "We'd shut down."

In Detroit, Andresky tells me, they're working to get businesses to stop purchasing steam created by incineration, which would cut into the facility's revenues. Watford's group used a similar tactic to block the construction of a proposed incinerator elsewhere in South Baltimore: They went to each entity that had signed on to purchase its energy and convinced them to drop the deal. The existing incinerator, Watford says, "is interwoven into our city's fabric, and we have to detangle that if we're going to build true zero-waste alternatives."

Claire Arkin, communications and campaign associate at GAIA, says it's "inevitable" that these "dinosaur" facilities will close, because upgrades and repair are simply too expensive. In 2010, Maxey points out, the ballooning costs of a 46-year-old incinerator pushed the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to the brink of bankruptcy.

Arkin's words rang in my ears as I watched a recent Long Beach City Council meeting, at which members unanimously voted to allocate $8.7 million to upgrades that will keep the facility running until 2024. (Covanta, the facility's operator, will kick in an additional $5 million). If the city council chooses to renew its contract at that point, an additional $100 million capital infusion would be required to keep it open until 2040, according to documents received through Pacific Standard's public records request. The facility's power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison will expire this year, adding another layer of uncertainty to its future.

Pressure from concerned community members may help shape that future. In an email about the vote obtained through a public records request, Charlie Tripp, the facility's bureau manager, expressed his concern about whether the amended agreement, which provided the funding for necessary upgrades, would pass. "We have been getting more questions on this item than any items we have previously had," he wrote. "My concern is that something could happen like happened with Commerce," where a waste-to-energy incinerator recently closed, in part thanks to public pressure on potential revenue streams.

The cities of Long Beach, Detroit, and Baltimore have each committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and advocates of closing waste incinerators say that moving away from incineration, and toward zero waste, will accomplish just that. "We tend to look at waste as separate from its origins," Arkin says. "If we look at the extractive way trash is made, the fossil fuels involved in creation, and the transport of these disposable items, it adds up to a huge piece of the puzzle in solving our climate crisis."

Using EPA data—though a different methodology—the Energy Justice Network estimates waste-to-energy facilities produce 2.5 times more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than coal-fired power plants.

"We are past the tipping point on our planet," Maxey says. "Our planet cannot afford any more unnecessary carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases released into the environment. And that's what these facilities do."