Sending a City’s Garbage Up in Flames

  • Michigan Waste Energy Chief Engineer Brad Laesser checks the cameras and emissions data at Detroit's incinerator. (Photo by Sarah Hulett)

Back in the 1980s and 90s,
dozens of communities across
the US built incinerators to
get rid of their trash. Many
of them financed the massive
furnaces with bonds they’re just
now paying off. And now that
those debts are off their books,
some cities are re-thinking whether
burning trash makes environmental
and economic sense. Sarah Hulett reports:

Transcript

Back in the 1980s and 90s,
dozens of communities across
the US built incinerators to
get rid of their trash. Many
of them financed the massive
furnaces with bonds they’re just
now paying off. And now that
those debts are off their books,
some cities are re-thinking whether
burning trash makes environmental
and economic sense. Sarah Hulett reports:

About 300 garbage trucks dump their loads each day at the nation’s biggest
municipal incinerator.

“You see the conveyor house going across, that’s conveying the fuel to the
boilers.”

That’s Brad Laesser. He’s the chief engineer at the Michigan Waste Energy
facility in Detroit.

The “fuel” he’s talking about is shredded-up trash.

And he says that’s the beauty of facilities like this. They produce electricity.

“So right now we’re putting out about 50 megawatts. But we can go to
here.”

Laesser points to 70 on the output gauge. That’s enough electricity to power
about half the homes in Detroit. And the leftover steam is used to heat and
cool more than 200 buildings downtown.

Sounds great, right?

Well, Brad Van Guilder of the Ecology Center says not so much.

“Be wary of people coming and talking to you about large, expensive magic
machines that are going to dispose of your waste for you.”

Van Guilder says municipal waste incinerators are major contributors to
smog, and spew dangerous pollutants like dioxin, lead and mercury.

And he says huge furnaces like Detroit’s make it nearly impossible to get
viable recycling efforts off the ground.

“Think about what’s in the trash that you throw out every day. One of the
most important components is paper and plastic.”

Both can be recycled. But Detroit has not had a curbside recycling program
for the past 20 years. That’s because the contract with the incinerator
required that all trash picked up at the curb be used to keep the furnaces
burning.

That changed this summer, though – when the contract expired. Now about
30,000 households are part of a curbside recycling pilot project. And there
are drop-off sites where people can take their recyclables.

(sound of recycling center)

Matthew Naimi heads an organization that runs several drop-off sites, and –
maybe surprisingly – he’s okay with the incinerator. Naimi says he sees
trash disposal and recycling as two separate industries.

“I realized that if we shut the incinerator down before we got a good
established recycling program running, we’d be burying our recyclables
instead of burning them.”

And officials with Covanta – which runs the Detroit incinerator – agree that
recycling and incineration can work together.

Paul Gilman is the chief sustainability officer for Covanta. He says landfills
are the problem – not recycling.

“Landfills and energy-from-waste facilities, that’s where the competition is.
It isn’t at the upper step of recycling.”

He says cheap landfill space makes the economics of incineration difficult.

But he’s hoping that could change with the passage of a climate change bill
in Washington. Gilman says in Europe and Asia, trash incinerators like
Detroit’s don’t get treated the same way as power plants fueled with coal or
natural gas.

“So in Asia, under the Kyoto protocols, a facility like this actually generates
what are called greenhouse gas credits. They’re reducing greenhouse gasses
by the act of processing solid waste and keeping it from going to a landfill.”

Where trash produces methane – a potent greenhouse gas.

But the people who want the incinerator shut down say they don’t believe
burning trash is the greener way to go. They want the city to landfill its
waste while it builds an aggressive recycling program.

So far, they’re not getting what they want from city leaders.

The board that oversees how Detroit handles its trash recently voted to go
with incineration for at least the next year.

For The Environment Report, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

Trash Burning Can Threaten Human Health

  • Burning trash smells bad and it can create the conditions necessary to produce dioxin. If livestock are exposed to that dioxin, it can get into the meat and milk we consume, creating health risks. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance)

For most of us, getting rid of the garbage is as simple as setting it at the curb. But not everyone can get garbage pick-up. So, instead, they burn their trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… that choice could be affecting your health:

Transcript

For most of us, getting rid of the garbage is as simple as setting it at the
curb, but not everyone can get garbage pick-up. So, instead, they burn
their trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports… that choice could be affecting your health:


(Sound of garbage trucks)


It’s not been that long ago that people everywhere but in the largest cities
burned their trash in a barrel or pit in the backyard. That’s not as often
the case these days. Garbage trucks make their appointed rounds in
cities, small towns, and in some rural areas, but they don’t pick up
Everywhere, or if they do offer service, it’s much more expensive
because the pick-up is so far out in the country.


Roger Booth lives in a rural area in southwestern Illinois. He says
garbage pick-up is not an option for him.


“Well, we burn it and then bury the ashes and things. We don’t have a
good way to dispose of it any other method. The cost of having pick up
arranged is prohibitive.”


He burns his garbage in the backyard. Booth separates bottles and tin
cans from the rest of the garbage so that he doesn’t end up with broken
glass and rusty cans scattered around.


A lot of people don’t do that much. They burn everything in a barrel and
then dump the ashes and scrap in a gully… or just burn everything in a
gully or ditch. Booth says that’s the way most folks take care of the
garbage in the area. No one talks about the smoke or fumes put off by
the burning.


“I haven’t ever thought much about that. So, I don’t suppose that I have
any real concerns at this moment. I don’t think I’m doing anything
different than most people.”


And that’s what many people who burn their garbage say.


A survey conducted by the Zenith Research Group found that people in
areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota who didn’t have regular garbage
collection believe burning is a viable option to get rid of their household
and yard waste. Nearly 45-percent of them indicated it was
“convenient,” which the researchers interpreted to mean that even if
garbage pick-up were available, the residents might find more convenient
to keep burning their garbage.


While some cities and more densely populated areas have restricted
backyard burning… state governments in all but a handful of states in
New England and the state of California have been reluctant to put a lot
of restrictions on burning barrels.


But backyard burning can be more than just a stinky nuisance. Burning
garbage can bring together all the conditions necessary to produce
dioxin. Dioxin is a catch-all term that includes several toxic compounds.
The extent of their impact on human health is not completely know, but
they’re considered to be very dangerous to human health in the tiniest
amounts.


Since most of the backyard burning is done in rural areas, livestock are
exposed to dioxin and it gets into the meat and milk that we consume.


John Giesy is with the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at
Michigan State University. He says as people burn garbage, the dioxins
are emitted in the fumes and smoke…


“So, when they fall out onto the ground or onto the grass, then animals
eat those plants and it becomes part of their diet, and ultimately it’s
accumulated into the animal and it’s stored as fat. Now, particularly with
dairy cattle, one of the concerns about being exposed to dioxins is that
then when they’re producing milk, milk has fat it in, it has butter fat in it,
and the dioxins go along with that.”


So, every time we drink milk, snack on cheese, or eat a hamburger, we
risk getting a small dose of dioxin. Beyond that, vegetables from a
farmer’s garden, if not properly washed, could be coated with dioxins,
and even a miniscule amount of dioxin is risky.


John Giesy says chemical manufacturing plants and other sources of
man-made dioxin have been cleaned up. Now, backyard burning is the
biggest source of dioxins produced by humans.


“So, now as we continue to strive to reduce the amount of dioxins in the
environment and in our food, this is one place where we can make an
impact.”


“That’s the concern. That’s the concern, is that it’s the largest remaining
source of produced dioxin.”


Dan Hopkins is with the Environmental Protection Agency. He says,
collectively, backyard burning produces 50 times the amount of dioxin as
all the large and medium sized incinerators across the nation combined.
That’s because the incinerators burn hot enough to destroy dioxins and
have pollution control devices to limit emissions. Backyard burning
doesn’t get nearly that hot and the smoke and fumes spread unchecked.


The EPA wants communities to take the problem of backyard burning
seriously. It wants state and local governments to do more to make
people aware that backyard burning is contaminating our food and
encourage them to find other ways to get rid of their garbage.


“(It) probably won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but by exchanging
successful efforts that other communities have had, we should be able to
help communities fashion approaches that have a high probability of
success.”


But public education efforts are expensive, and often they don’t reach the
people who most need to hear them. The EPA is not optimistic that it
will see everyone stop burning their garbage. It’s not even a goal. The
agency is just hoping enough people will find other ways to get rid of
their trash that the overall dioxin level in food is reduced.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Study: Mercury Restrictions Help Local Wildlife

A recent study seems to indicate that wildlife recover from mercury contamination pretty quickly once emissions restrictions are in place. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

A recent study seems to indicate that wildlife recover from mercury contamination pretty
quickly once emissions restrictions are in place. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lester Graham reports:


The study reveals nearby mercury pollution can end up in local fish and wildlife. It’s
been thought that emissions from incinerators and coal-fired power plants spewed
mercury into the atmosphere where it settled out far away from the source.


In this study, published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry,
University of Florida scientists determined that mercury in local wading birds rose and
fell with emission levels from nearby sources. Tom Atkeson coordinates the mercury
program at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.


“Where we were able to make emissions reductions, we’ve been fortunate enough to see
declines in deposition and then very rapid responses in the aquatic system, lower levels of
mercury in fish and wildlife.”


Environmentalists say this means the Bush proposed cap and trade program for reducing
mercury emissions could lead to local mercury “hot spots” across the nation.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Region Deals With Deadly Nerve Agent

The Army wants to get rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons because they fear terrorists might get to them. There are eight Army sites across the U.S. that store those kinds of chemicals. At one site in the Midwest, the military is planning to dispose of Nerve Agent VX. To destroy the stockpiles, the Army must first “water-down” the nerve agent. Then it has to be shipped to a company that disposes of industrial wastes. But while the Army says it’s making neighborhoods safer near where the chemical weapons are stored … some people fear having the watered-down nerve agent trucked into their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:

Transcript

The Army wants to get rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons because they fear terrorists might get to them. There are eight Army sites across the U.S. that store those kinds of chemicals. At one site in the Midwest, the military is planning to dispose of Nerve Agent VX. To destroy the stockpiles, the Army must first “water-down” the nerve agent. Then it has to be shipped to a company that disposes of industrial wastes. But while the Army says it’s making neighborhoods safer near where the chemical weapons are stored, some people fear having the watered-down nerve agent trucked into their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:


Nerve Agent VX is a clear, odorless liquid with the consistency of motor oil. It was
accidentally created during the Korean War, when British chemists were experimenting
with various concoctions meant to kill lice on North Korean POW’s and refugees. Nerve
Agent VX kills within minutes after contact with the skin. It has never been used in
combat by the United States. Instead, most of the country’s supply sits in a highly-
guarded tank at the Newport Chemical Depot in west-central Indiana. In 1985, Congress
ordered the chemical weapons destroyed because many seemed obsolete. In 1997, the
United States joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits countries from
developing, producing, stockpiling or using chemical weapons.


Then, as U.S. Army spokesperson Terry Arthur explains, terrorists slammed planes into
the World Trade Center towers:


“After September 11th, 2001, because the public suddenly became aware of the possibility
for terrorism here in the United States, folks living near the stockpiles became acutely
aware of that. And the army began to look at ways to accelerate destruction of the
stockpiles.”


The Army is planning to burn some of its chemical weapons in incinerators. The Nerve
Agent VX that’s stored in Newport, Indiana will be destroyed through a neutralization
process. That’s a process that makes the nerve agent no more harmful than a household
drain cleaner.


(Ambient sound fade up)


The watered-down version of the nerve agent is called hydrolysate. It will be shipped by
tanker truck to Perma-Fix Environmental Services, a company in Dayton, Ohio. It’s a
company that usually handles industrial wastes and used oils.


“If you get your oil changed anywhere at a service station near the Dayton, Ohio area,
chances are, the used oil from your vehicle ends up here.”


That’s company Vice President Tom Trebonik. He says the hydrolysate will, simply put,
be broken down by a natural process. It will be eaten by microscopic bugs. And then it
breaks down even more into a form that will be pumped into the sewer system.


But, once word of a “nerve agent” coming to town spread around the small, poor
neighborhood near the plant, environmentalists began working with residents to voice
opposition to its disposal. They tacked up signs in the local supermarket and carry-out
that read “Deadly VX Nerve Agent” is coming to the neighborhood.


(Nat sound)


Martha Chatterton is a young mother of one with another child on the way. She lives in a
small house in a decaying area. Her husband fixes cars in the garage out back. They’re
glued to the news on CNN about heightened terror alerts. They know terrorist attacks are
a possibility. But they don’t want a problem from Indiana shipped to their backyard.


Chatterton is worried about the health effects of living near a plant that deals with such
industrial wastes. She says some days the air is orange and smells of a chemical stew.


“Well, last year we did the whole yard with roses and different flowers, and about a week
after we planted them, all of them died. So there’s got… there’s something wrong with
the ground here, because when I dug the hole for the rose tree, it smelled like gas fumes.”


Chatterton fears Perma-Fix won’t be able to properly handle the hydrolysate. The
company was cited in 2001 for odor violation but has since installed equipment to solve
the problem. Beyond that, the U.S. EPA and the Army see no reason why the treated
nerve agent can’t be trucked into town. Again, Army spokesperson Terry Arthur:


“We understand the concern of the public because it’s derived from a chemical agent.
What we want them to understand is that we have truckers who will be dedicated and
trained specifically for hauling this product and getting it across the state line to the Ohio
facility, where experts have been working with this kind of material for years.”


With the threat of terrorism, there’s little that’s likely to slow the pace of the destruction
of the nerve agent. The risks of leaving it intact seem greater than the risks associated
with destroying it.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.