If you were to drive along I-5 near Brooks, Oregon you might notice a tall smokestack with red stripes. Steam and smoke would be floating up into the air, and trucks carrying smelly garbage would be driving in and out of the building. Youâ€™d probably see cows grazing across the street from the fenced-in facility, unconcerned with the steady flow of traffic.
Public concern over toxic emissions and the burning of solid and medical waste at the Covanta Waste to Energy Facility in Brooks has ramped up over the last few months because its Title V Operating Permit is under review for renewal at Oregonâ€™s Department of Environmental Quality. Public hearings were held in February and the permit is pending at DEQ.
Of greatest concern to many local residents is the lack of sufficient testing to determine if there are long-term cumulative environmental and health effects from the emissions, which contain dioxin, mercury, and metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium.
Susann Kaltwasser, who created waste-can.org, a Web site devoted to the Covanta burner and the issues raised by its incineration processes, said there were four primary areas of concern.
â€œThere is no testing for everything that may be coming out of the burner and the testing that is conducted is done too infrequently,â€ Kaltwasser said. â€œThe standards used in testing are not based on health standards. The industry is responsible for establishing standards on what the industry does. And finally, no one is looking at the cumulative numbers. Nobody tests the water, soil, crops or milk. There are dairy cows grazing in the shadow of the burner.â€
Kyle Elwood, a pharmacist who twice served on the Marion County Solid Waste Advisory Council, was against building the Brooks facility in the first place.
â€œMy biggest concern is that they are not focused on health issues related to incineration. It is a state-of-the-art facility and it has some of the best extraction capabilities out there,â€ Elwood said. â€œBut they are doing nothing to monitor long-term health effects.â€
Elwood said that a baseline has not been established for environmental contamination or for the health of workers at the plant. He feels that testing data is inadequate.
â€œThey take minute and limited tests and then extrapolate that data to say if more waste was added it wouldnâ€™t be a problem. But thatâ€™s not proof of anything.â€
Tests on emissions are conducted once a year at the Brooks incinerator and contractors bid on the contract. The Environmental Protection Agency established the standards for compliance and DEQ has adopted similar standards, which are stipulated under the Title V Permit. General Manager of the Cavanta facility Russel Johnston said employees at the facility are tested once a year to monitor exposure to lead and cadmium according to OSHA regulations. They are not tested for dioxin or mercury exposure.
Andy Harris, a local doctor with Physicians for Social Responsibility, doesnâ€™t trust the testing data.
â€œCovanta sets the date for testing and they hire a company they like to conduct the tests,â€ Harris said. â€œItâ€™s like the fox guarding the henhouse.â€
Harris thinks the potentially serious nature of the toxic materials emitted by the incinerator is being ignored by Covanta.
â€œThey have never tested the area around the incinerator. They should be testing humans who work there and live nearby. It should be a serious health study.â€
Marion County Senior Environmental Engineer Jeff Bickford said they have the most stringent air pollution controls in place, but admitted that there is no testing for long-term â€œEven if we did test for problems and difficulties in the long-term, how would you attribute the source? The Brooks facility is along the I-5 corridor. There are 50,000 trucks driving by every day and they are one of the worst and most significant polluters.â€
Bickford said there was testing for environmental effects for 12 years but they were stopped five years ago. There is talk of starting the tests again next year. The numbers were always consistent and the dioxin and lead levels decreased in a linear fashion the further away from I-5 the tests were conducted.
Kyle Elwood remains unconvinced.
â€œIf I-5 is a problem, then is it okay to add to it? There is also backyard and field burning, so we add another factor in? I-5 and the Brooks burner together are a potentially bigger problem.â€
Many residents are concerned about the levels of mercury and dioxin contained in the burnerâ€™s emissions. The incinerator burns 550 tons of solid waste a day but Covantaâ€™s tests have revealed that less than 50 pounds of mercury and dioxin are released per year, much less than the 200 pounds allowed by the proposed permit now under review.
Some concerned residents, such as Carroll Johnston believe any amount of mercury emitted into the environment is unacceptable.
â€œEven small amounts of mercury can have a devastating effect on the environment. Less than an ounce of mercury will contaminate a 25-acre lake. The Willamette Valley watershed already has rivers in which fish are too contaminated with mercury to be safe to eat.â€
Johnston said that many of the toxic pollutants, such as mercury and dioxin, accumulate in the environment over time so that emissions within a specific year might seem to be at acceptable levels.
There has been public outcry as well over the importation and burning of medical waste at the Brooks incinerator. Covantaâ€™s Russel Johnston said they burn about 800 tons of medical waste per year, less than half of one percent of the total waste burned. Medical waste is brought to the facility in sealed boxes and is carried to the furnace on a conveyor belt which layers it with the rest of the solid waste being processed.
Marion County Director of Public Works, Jim Sears said that there is no testing of medical waste at the facility because not enough is burned.
Susann Kaltwasser said this should be cause for alarm.
â€œWe donâ€™t know whatâ€™s in the burner when they are testing. There is no way to know what emissions are from medical waste. They donâ€™t test for everything that comes out of the stack.â€
Russel Johnston said that recycling is a major component of the solid waste removal process and that Marion County has achieved a 57 percent recycling rate, one of the highest in Oregon.
Neha Patel, a Program Director with the Oregon Center for Environmental Health, said that phasing out incineration altogether is the goal.
â€œWith recycling efforts and newer technologies for waste disposal, we believe landfills are a better alternative to
Kaltwasser also believes â€œzero wasteâ€ through recycling and new technologies is an attainable goal.
â€œWe need to raise public awareness. There are many countries and cities that have adopted plans to move in this direction. My hope is we can start getting a community dialogue started as we explore alternatives.â€