Incinerators Offer Local Journalists Some Burning Issues

October 10, 2018

TipSheet: Incinerators Offer Local Journalists Some Burning Issues

Incinerators, problematic as air pollution sources, may be less commonplace than they once were. But they have hardly vanished — it’s a good bet there is one not far from you — and so remain local news (may require subscription) for many environmental reporters.

There was a time when incinerators were viewed as a cheap and effective way to make garbage go away. But it didn’t really go away; it was transformed into smoke and air pollution that scientists increasingly recognized as toxic. Too often, in this form, it sticks around … for people to breathe.

Incinerators have diminished in number (and, arguably, pollution output) since the Clean Air Act was first passed in 1970. The regulatory history is long, complex and political, because numerous industries have financial stakes in incinerators.

You would think the Clean Air Act would be enough to regulate incinerator emissions — but you’d be wrong. Hazardous-waste law and a number of special purpose laws are also involved, as are various state and local laws.

All that is more than we can cover in this one TipSheet. But be aware that despite all the rules, incinerators are still bothering many people who live (and breathe) near them.

Controversies in Michigan, Maryland, Missouri

Using state records, for instance, two reporters at the Detroit Free Press showed this year that one troublesome incinerator there had exceeded emissions standards more than 750 times over the previous five years. Most of the exceedances were not considered violations by the Department of Environmental Quality.  

The unit operates in an industrial area where childhood asthma rates are high. Neighbors are unhappy.


Nobody really wants someone else’s waste. …

Very often people from lower income and

minority groups get the short end of the stick.


Similar controversy has surrounded the Wheelabrator Incinerator in Baltimore. State regulators in August asked it to reduce its emissions. According to the Baltimore Sun, it is the city’s largest single source of industrial air pollution. State law allows it to collect millions in subsidies because it is considered a green energy source.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year proposed relaxing heavy metal emission monitoring requirements for a Veolia incinerator in East St. Louis, as part of its Clean Air Act permit.

Whose waste? That’s an issue

One key issue related to incinerators is the availability and quality of landfill space for trash disposal.

The municipal jurisdictions for disposal of solid and hazardous waste often vary widely in the amount of landfill space they have available. Some have little space on their own turf, though they can pay to dispose of their waste elsewhere.

It’s all very political. Nobody, or almost nobody, really wants someone else’s waste. There is much opportunity for drama, and very often people from lower income and minority groups get the short end of the stick.

Most of the small residential and backyard trash burners have been gone for years. Local and state laws often prohibit them as a smoke nuisance, except in rare cases (like on farms).

Large-scale incinerators have become more technologically advanced. By burning waste at much higher temperatures, they can reduce emissions of things like unburned particulates. The EPA does set standards for the big units.

One key controversy is the waste industry’s (and EPA’s) effort to remake the image of incinerators as “green” energy sources. Some waste streams, when burned, can indeed produce useful energy. When operated at high temperature and high efficiency, they may be pretty clean.

But as the above examples in Detroit and Baltimore suggest, this is not always the case. Picturing them as “energy recovery” may encourage people to ignore the harm they may offer as pollution sources.

More environmentally sound approaches may exist

Yet landfills that recover methane may be a greener way to go (not to mention the options of waste prevention, reduction or recycling).

A lot depends on the nature and quality of the waste being burned. For some wastes, burning may make sense. One example is medical wastes that may include infectious materials; high-temperature incineration is likely to prevent possible infection.

The controversial Wheelabrator Incinerator in Baltimore, the city’s largest single source of industrial pollution. State regulators want to cut its emissions at the same time it provides its operator millions in subsidies. Photo: Ivy Dawned, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Another example is waste oil — something there is quite a lot of, and which has high energy value. Ditto used tires. Still another example may be wastes containing large proportions of toxic chemicals, which may be dangerous in landfills but permanently destroyed if incineration temperatures are high enough.

But none of these gambits are foolproof. Incinerators may burn badly if not run right, or during upsets, or during startups and shutdowns. Hospital waste streams may include plastics and other things that make toxic emissions. Waste oil may contain toxic heavy metals. Tires may contain lead. When these incinerators do have equipment meant to trap and remove pollution from their waste gas, the controls may not work perfectly.

Even typical municipal “solid waste” —  ordinary garbage — is more than just paper and coffee grounds. It is likely to contain plastics, electronics, household cleaners and chemicals, etc., which may produce toxic substances like heavy metals, dioxins and furans when burned.

Poor communities are often forced to host facilities

There is often an “environmental justice” angle to incinerator stories.

Almost everyone would agree that most waste facilities are hard to site (can you say “NIMBY?) In practice, this means they often end up in areas where the politically least powerful people live — and these are often people with low incomes and ethnic minorities.

Any harm from incinerators is often compounded by pollution from other sources in a concentrated industrial area. The sense of injustice may be amplified when the incinerator accepts waste from out-of-area or out-of-state.

Here is a list of most of the biggest incinerators in the United States. One group working on incinerator issues is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

For an industry perspective, check out the North American Waste-to-Energy Conference, which is run by the Solid Waste Association of North America.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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