Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why Idaho Doesn't Need Any Waste/Biomass Incinerator

The following is in response to the Idaho House of Representatives House Concurrent Resolution No. 14 by the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee.

Around the world and especially in the United States it has become government policy to use low income areas and indigenous land as sites for waste disposal (Beasly, 1990; Brook, 1998; Rees, 1992; Taliman, 1994; Angel, 1992; Bullard, 1994). This includes landfills, municipal waste incinerators, waste to energy plants and toxic/hazardous waste (Beasly, 1990; Rees, 1992; Greenberg, 1993).

“Because of their quasi-sovereign status, Native American reservations have become the ‘new’ targets of environmental threats, ranging from household garbage to hazardous and nuclear wastes.” Neal and Allen, 1996.

The State of Idaho contains many rural, low income, and indigenous communities. In recent years, several areas in Idaho have been approached by WTE, coal-fired, and other types of supposedly “renewable” energy companies. This past year, Magic Valley almost approved the building of a coal-fired plant, and several years ago the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho almost bought into the idea of building a WTE in Boundary County. Both places found their “alternative” energy ideas to be opposed by many local residents, and the disfavor and objection to these kinds of plants was loud, informed, and disapproving. Any county or city in Idaho that becomes convinced that the burning of coal, waste, and any other biomass is good for the community and, perhaps, good for the state, should examine the vast available evidence that shows these kinds of alternative are destructive to health, economics, and the environment.

All waste plants cause real estate values to fall dramatically, not only surrounding the plant but throughout the community. Real estate standards, policies and associations will all support this fact (Acks, 1995; Brion, 1988; Inhaber, 1992; Been, 1993). Property values all over this county will fall.

“The existence of nonhazardous waste products can also reduce the value of properties directly exposed to these wastes as well as surrounding properties. Similarly, proximity to properties involved with the disposal of non hazardous wastes including landfills, incinerators and sewage plants can cause property values to plunge….

Key outdoor pollutants are ozone, particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Outdoor pollutants can reduce property values by nominal amounts, or up by as much as 50%….

Water related… factors which might influence property values include 1: the loss of clean drinking water; 2: elimination of recreational benefits (swimming, fishing, and boating) for properties near bodies of water….

Tax Assessors and real estate tax courts have begun to recognize the effects of environmental damages upon property values.” (Acks, 1995)

In almost every case in the U.S. where a waste incinerator of any kind has been built, it has ended up costing taxpayers lots of money mostly in the form of hidden costs not made known to the public (Connett, 1998). Very few jobs are created by this huge economic investment and most of the money invested in the plant leaves the community (Connett, 1998; Ewall, 2000).

“Nicholas P. Heymann, an analyst with NatWest Securities Corp., said Westinghouse’s waste incinerators are running at far less than capacity…The industry also is suffering from too many incinerators and too little trash, which is pushing down prices. And incinerators carry high fixed costs, making it easy for them to fall into the red when their operating rates decline, Mr. Heymann said.” Wall Street Journal, “Westinghouse Sees 3rd Quarter Profit Falling 50% on Cleanup Unit Weakness,” Sept. 20, 1993.

Three plants which used EPI’s (Energy Products of Idaho) fluidized bed technology closed down due to lack of garbage and/or the prices of energy and biomass. These were located in areas with large populations: Tacoma, WA, LaCrosse, WI, and Chowchilla, CA. Their economic expense has been incredible (West BioEnergy, undated; Connett, 1993; Ewall, 2000).

From August 11, 1993. Northern States Power, La Crosse, WI, says it “can’t fill half the capacity of an incinerator built there in 1988.” Wall Street Journal.

“Tacoma Steam Plant No. 2…on April 22, 1998…was placed into reserve shutdown….The supply of RDF, the demand for power, and prices available in the secondary energy market have determined operating levels at the plant. In 1997 and 1998, the price of electric energy in the Tacoma market was generally less than 1 cent/kWh. A biomass/waste-fueled plant cannot produce power at these low prices unless the fuels command substantial tipping fees.” West BioEnergy, undated.

“Originally four plants were developed by CAPCO Energy, started up in 1988 through 1990, were bought by the present owners in July 1992, and shut down in March 1995, after negotiating a buyout agreement with PG&E. Chowchilla I has been sold and dismantled. Chowchilla II, El Nido, and Madera remain in operable condition. The owners are soliciting offers for these plants, to be sold on an ‘as is, where is’ basis….During the early 1990s, natural gas prices collapsed, and biomass fuel prices doubled or tripled in California. The cost of power from biomass facilities was well above the market price of energy in the utilities systems. In October 1993, PG&E asked the owners to curtail operations. …on March 1, 1995 [the] plants were shut down and are being continuously maintained while being offered for sale. In the three years following April 1994, 16 biomass power plants in California, rated collectively at more than 200 MW, accepted buyout offers and shut down.” West BioEnergy, undated.

Often, the plants that have closed attempt to recoup losses by selling the basic incinerator structure to naïve communities who think they need a waste incinerator. This was the case in Boundary County.

In both rural and urban areas, the traffic itself will tear up the highways with a seemingly endless passage of trucks to the incinerator site. The plant, itself, will be noisy, it will smell, and usually you’ll be able to see the ugly stacks from the highway.

Someone’s beautiful backyard will become a garbage dump. Needless to say, this will not do much for tourism or growth. But that’s not all.

Although the U.S. has been negligent with its health studies in areas with waste to energy incinerators, the European Community and the World Health Organization have not. Every waste to energy incinerator has air emissions that escape, and these emissions contain dioxins (Connett, 1998; Ewall, 2000; Pope, 1999).

“All municipal waste burning incinerators are major contributors to airborne dioxin. These incinerators are the main source of human exposure to this cancer-causing toxin because the dioxin deposits on fields and moves up the food chain where it concentrates in dairy products and beef.” Barry Commoner, cited in the LaCrosse Tribune, April 3, 2001.

Dioxins are a known human carcinogen (World Health Organization, 1998; Ewall, 2000; Huang and Buekens, 1995).

“Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) constitute a group of persistent environmental chemicals. A number of dioxin or furan congeners, as well as some co-planar PCBs have been shown to exert a number of toxic responses similar to those of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), the most toxic dioxin. These effects include dermal toxicity, immunotoxicity, reproductive effects and teratogenicity, endocrine disruption and carcinogenicity.” Executive Summary, World Health Organization, 1998.

Even if the emissions meet EPA standards for daily emissions, that is not good enough because dioxins are accumulative: once in your body they never leave, they just build up over time. Not only do they stay in the human body, they also remain and build up in your alfalfa fields, your wheat fields, your dairy cows, your beef cattle, your pets, and your children.

“Dioxins are toxic, persistent in the environment and they are bioaccumulative, i.e., they build up in the tissues of animals and humans alike.” Allsopp, Costner, and Johnson, 2001.

“…studies have shown that high levels of dioxins are present in soils near to some incinerators. In many instances, they have also shown that the level of dioxin found in soil and vegetation is dependent upon the distance from the incinerator, a phenomenon which implicates incinerators as a primary source of the contamination.” Allsopp, Costner and Johnson, 2001.

“Cattle that graze in areas subject to air deposition of pollutants, such as dioxins, can ingest the pollutants that have been deposited on vegetation and soils. Dioxins can subsequently be passed to their milk, and hence, ultimately to humans. This is because elimination via milk is a major route of excretion of dioxins in cow’s milk (Baldassarri et al. 1994). Research conducted in several countries during the 1990’s has demonstrated elevated levels of dioxins in cow’s milk from farms near to incinerators.” Allsopp, Costner, and Johnson, 2001.

And they produce hideous cancers, birth defects, and mutations (World Health Organization, 1998; Allsopp, Costner and Johnson, 2001; Connett, 1998). In Europe, dairy and other farms have been closed down because of the buildup of dioxins (Connett, 1998). The people affected most directly by dioxins in waste incinerators are the employees themselves:

Incinerator operators and maintenance workers, and those involved in the collection, transport, and disposal of fly ash and emission control equipment residues, have the potential to be most exposed to toxic substances associated with incineration….incinerator workers have been exposed to high concentrations of dioxins and toxic metals, particularly lead, cadmium, and mercury” (National Resource Council, 2000).

Although most of this information pertains to waste-to-energy plants, all of this should be taken into consideration when the offer of a biomass plant comes to an Idaho community. First of all, just the term “biomass” itself can mean a number of different materials from sewer sludge to wood to landfill materials. The U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Power Glossary defines biomass:

Organic matter available on a renewable basis. Biomass includes forest and mill residues, agricultural crops and wastes, wood and wood wastes, animal wastes, livestock operation residues, aquatic plants, fast-growing trees and plants, and municipal and industrial wastes.

Secondly, each of these materials included in the definition contains its own set of problems, for example, burning wood is not very efficient on a large scale level, therefore these plants often depend upon other sources such as natural gas, as at the Kettle Falls, WA 50 megawatt wood-burning incinerator (Personal Communication, Kettle Falls Plant Manager). In applying for FERC permits, many companies go for the permit which also allows the burning of other kinds of waste, including tires, landfill waste, etc., because these burn at higher and more constant temperatures, thus making the energy producing plant more efficient (Ewell, 2000). Needless to say, it also makes the plant that much more polluting, unhealthy, and economically bad for local communities.

Other sources of biomass incineration also have problems. Much wood waste also contains paints, glues, plastic laminating materials, preservatives, formaldehyde, and other toxin producing substances (Ewell, 2000). Fast growing trees and plants are better off tilled into the soil, that is, if they haven’t been used at toxic sites in order to suck the toxins from the earth as a method of cleaning up those sites. The problems go on and on and without a thorough examination of the potential plant, ignorance and naiveté could very well destroy what we all value so much in the state of Idaho: clean air, clean water, forests, wildlife, and wilderness.

Finally, alternatives exist to incineration. In all honesty, I had never even considered anything as idealistic as “zero waste,” until an expert, Dr. Paul Connett, spoke to our small rural community. No, he wasn’t a highly paid, U of I guest: he came here at the request of those hundreds of people who didn’t want a WTE in this small, rural community. Staying with local people, he charged only for his airfare and one meal, because he is a committed activist in waste management. Dr. Connett’s presentations on incineration, and its alternative, zero waste, have been given in 49 states, 5 Canadian provinces, and over 44 countries. As a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University, he has written many articles on dioxins, toxic waste, and waste management. He has also followed closely communities around the world that have committed to becoming zero-waste communities, including Halifax, Nova Scotia, Nelson, British Columbia, Alameda, California, Kamikatsu, Japan, several cities in the Philippines, and over 50% of the cities in New Zealand. Zero waste, and the reduction of global warming, are real possibilities. But they need an informed electorate and populace in order to become a reality.


Acks, Kenneth. 1995. “Valuation of environmental damages to real estate.”

Allsopp, Michelle, Pat Costner and Paul Johnson. 2001 “Incineration and human health.” Greenpeace Research Laboratories, University of Exeter, UK.

Angel, Bradley. 1992. “The toxic threat to Indian lands: a Greenpeace report.” 17pp.

Baldassarri, L., A. Bocca, A. di Domenico, A. Fulgenzi, and N. Lacovella. 1994. “GC-MS isomer-specific determination of PCBs and some chlorinated pesticides in milk and cheese samples.” Organophalogen Compounds, 20: 221-224.

Beasly, Conger. 1990. “Of pollution and poverty: deadly threat on native lands.” Buzzworm, 2 (5): 39-45.

Been, Vicki. 1993. “What’s fairness go to do with it? Environmental justice and the siting of locally undesirable land uses.” Cornell University Law Review, v. 78: 1001-1085.

Brion, Denis J. 1988. “An essay on LULU, NIMBY, and the problem of distributive justice.“ Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, vol.15, n. 3-4 (Spring 1988): 437-503.

Brook, Daniel. 1998. “Environmental genocide: Native Americans and toxic waste.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology (AES), January, 1998: 105-113.

Bullard, Robert D. 1994. Dumping in Dixie: race, class and environmental quality. 2nd edition. Boulder: Westview Press.

Connett, Paul. 1998. “Municipal waste incineration: a poor solution for the twenty first century.” Paper presented at the 4th Annual International management Conference Waste-To-Energy.

Ewall, Mike. 2000. “The burning issues with Biomass.” Green Energy.

Greenberg, Michael R. 1993. “Proving environmental inequity in siting locally unwanted land uses.” Risk Issues In Health & Safety, 4: 235-252.

Huang, H. and A. Buekens. 1995. On the mechanisms of dioxin formation in combustion processes.” Chemosphere, 31 (9): 4099-4117.

Inhaber, Herbert. 1992. “Of LULU’s, NIMBY’s and NIMTOO’s.” Public Interest, n. 107: 52.

La Crosse Tribune. 2001. “News Release: Environmental group announces law suit against NSP incinerator for pollution violations.” La Crosse Tribune, April 3, 2001.

National Resource Council. 2000. “Waste incineration and public health.” Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Neal, Ruth and April Allen. 1998. “Environmental justice: an annotated bibliography.” Report Series, EJRC/CAU-1-96.

Pope, Kent. 1999. “Waste-to-energy: Europe’s landfill alternative.” Adams Business Media, Inc.

Rees, Matthew. 1992. “Black and green: race and environmentalism.” New Republic, 206 (9): 15-16.

Taliman, Valerie. 1994. “Saving native lands: one woman’s crusade against environmental racism.” Ms. Magazine, 4 (4): 28-29.

U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Power Glossary. http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/faqs/glossary.html.

Wall Street Journal. 1993. “Westinghouse sees 3rd quarter profit falling 50% on cleanup unit Weakness.” Wall Street Journal.

West BioEnergy. Undated. “Tacoma Steam Plant No. 2, Tacoma, Washington.”
---------- Undated. “San Joaquin Valley Energy Partners, Chowchilla, El Nido, and Madera, California.

World Health Organization. 1998. “Summary of the health of dioxins: re-evaluation of the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI).” World Health Organization Executive Summary. May 25-29, 1998, Geneva, Switzerland, WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, International Programme on Chemical Safety.


Alan said...

Nice work, and well documented.

IdahoRocks said...

If anyone wants to use this post, please ask permission. Also, the author is, in this case, me, Linda Langness, Ph.D.

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Anonymous said...

Weakly researched post. Most of your citations were from the 1990's. As with most industries, Waste-To-Energy continues to improve its environmental footprint. Recent research demonstrates that WTE facilities burn cleaner than coal-fired plants. While I wouldn't want a WTE plant in my backyard, the technology is, in fact, sound. How do you explain the EU, Japan, and the EPA declaring WTE a more environmentally-friendly solution to waste management than landfilling?

IdahoRocks said...

Anonymous, cite your evidence, and I can still cite more to demonstrate the errors in your thinking. And if you think the EPA is the greatest judge of emission standards, then you haven't been keeping an eye on its almost total degradation by the Bush administration and, extended from them, corporate influence.

Anonymous said...

Your information is very outdated verses today's data. Revisit your facts with those from 2003 or more recent. Your thinking might have a radically different slant with more accuracy.

Rob van Haaren said...

I totally agree on Anonymous. Your arguments are all true, and I really like your literature research. However, those sources themselves are from emission studies done 15 years ago, on WTE plants that have been built in the 80's. Researchers have been doing a great job in extracting and stabilizing pollutants from the flue gases. All these technologies are currently being applied in countries like The Netherlands, France, Germany etc etc. These countries have been building up to 300 WTE plants across Europe (yes they do have emission regulations, more strict then in US). The US however, has not built a single WTE plant since 1996. And it is because people stick to the idea of waste burning being bad like in the 80's, that new practical applications of WTE have not been initiated. Since you like people to use references, I would invite you to explore the WTERT website: http://www.wtert.org/
Since your academic integrity as a PhD must be stunning, a new essay using fresh references would be in place and I would be happy to read it.
Ow yeah, have you seen the new WTE plant in the city centre of Paris?

Mary Serreze said...

Massachusetts Sierra Club backs up the information in IdahoRocks' blogpost; state waste incineration ban may be lifted; health and environmental concerns real