Community Concerns Over Covanta Marion
Covanta Marion is a privately owned garbage incinerator located in Brooks, Oregon. It has been in operation for the past 36 years and in contract with the local area to perform services. The incinerator is responsible for processing solid waste and converting it into energy for surrounding communities. The county and private company claim that Covanta Marion is a reliable and environmentally safe method of disposal. However, local community members and coalitions have come out in opposition stating the organization is attempting to reclassify themselves as a renewable energy source while continuing to damage the environment.
The purpose of this article is to illustrate the opposing sides of this continuous argument. It will begin with a historical background and review of the subject. This will be inclusive of recent legislative attempts to alter policy. Followed by an in-depth understanding of current stakeholders involved in these policy decisions. Concludes an elaboration of both sides of the argument and personal reflection upon the subject. May the reader arrive at their own conclusion.
According to the State of Oregon government website, the fundamental purpose of the Covanta Marion Incinerator (CMI) is to provide an outlet and disposal for solid waste. It receives solid waste and stores it on site to process through a combustion system and generate steam. Steam that is produced is then converted through turbine generator as a means of creating electricity. Electricity created is then sold to the local utility company. It operates under the policy defined in Oregon Revised Statues 459.005 and the facility’s solid waste permit.
Salzman & Thompson clarify that the term “solid” is an incredibly broad term when it comes to waste management. It covers nearly every form of substance or matter except for uncontained gases. Moreover, this definition was kept broad to prevent parties from converting waste and avoiding coverage. The fact remains that if you add enough water, most solid waste materials can be agitated to become a liquid. (p. 234)
Currently, the facility handles an average of 550 tons of garbage on any given day. (Marion County 2022). In doing so, CMI can generate around 13 Megawatts of energy on an annual basis. According to the county, this is enough to power to help provide for the entire area of the city of Woodburn for a year. Arguably a benefit in many cases as electricity continues to be a daily component of life.
Although demands for electricity are high, the negative externality appears to be the emissions being put out by the incinerators. Local community groups such as the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV) and the Clean Air Now Coalition stress the concern of air pollution to marginalized communities who live near the facility. Previous reports published by the DEQ demonstrate that approximately 162,437 metric tons of greenhouse gases were emitted by CMI in 2019. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, this equates to the same number of emissions as driving 35,327 cars full-time for an entire year.
Another report published by the EPA expressed that “communities within a five-mile radius of the incinerator are at higher risk of environmental and socioeconomic, contributing to persistent health disparities.” (Loew 2021). The same concern for these communities was expressed by neighboring towns within Marion county such as Silverton. The City of Silverton expressed in a 2020 report that CMI is one of the areas largest greenhouse gas producers. The city expressed concern regarding the environmental justice problem citing Lisa Arkin, the Executive Director of Beyond Toxics. Previous research supports Arkin and the City of Silverton’s claims. Data from the National Air Toxics Assessment was used to show that “communities within a 7-mile radius of Covanta’s pollutions tacks rank in the 88th percentile for cancer and respiratory risks and 83rd percentile for minority, low-income and linguistically isolated compared to other parts of Oregon” (Gaia 2019 as referenced by City of Silverton 2020)
Air pollution is a serious concern. The neighboring communities appear to be in constant battle to obtain representation and a voice at the decision-making table. The pollution in the area remains to be a serious matter. There are millions of Americans who suffer from chronic lung disease. Based upon trends, the death rate for lung disease has remained constant over the past five years. Meanwhile, other causes have death appear to have decreased significantly. (Saltzman & Thompson p. 113) Policy makers thus owe it to the marginalized and underrepresented communities, and furthermore the county, to rectify these concerns over CMI.
CMI has recently applied for new solid waste permits in addition to advocating for specific legislation to pass in state congress. Back in 2019 CMI lead efforts to pass a Senate Bill (SB) 451. This bill requested renewable energy certificates for the company and other facilities who produce electricity. More specifically, the bill specified that these credits would be provided to facilities who combusted municipal solid waste but were operational prior to 1995. This bill was opposed by local community members, coalitions, and other stakeholders. It ultimately did not pass through the Oregon House of Representatives.
In more recent legislative activity, Covanta pushed for House Bill (HB) 4049. This bill sought to allow CMI and other facilities to receive energy credits yet again. Credits that coalitions such as the OLCV believe should be purposed and sourced towards renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower. This similar opinion is echoed by others in the nearby community. Seemingly so, the opposing sides appear to come to battle repeatedly regarding this same issue.
Stakeholder & Their Perspectives
“Environmental protection is not solely a scientific decision.” (Saltzman & Thompson p. 52) Rather it is through the conscious daily decision of individuals and organizations. Saltzman & Thompson reinforce this by highlighting the importance of interest group representation in advocating for the implementation of new laws. These organizations directly impact government policy. (p. 68) In Marion County, there are a few organizations that are more actively at play. The following portions of the article articulate some of their arguments and perspectives. This is not to imply these expressed views are the sentiment of the entire county or nearby communities.
One organization that was instrumental in the opposition lead against SB 451 was the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). As an organization they vow to protect human life. They stand on pillars of protecting the climate, end nuclear threat, promote peace, and advance justice. PSR’s position on clean air is firm that everyone has the right to breathe clean air. They claim that the Pacific Northwest communities face threats to clean air because of waste incineration. In a means of combating this threat the organization works on educating local elected officials on meeting the needs of the community in a sustainable way. PSR continues to advocate in opposition of CMI’s operations and legislative proposals.
Another organization that stands in opposition of CMI’s recent activity is the Clean Air Now Coalition. They have referenced the extensive amounts of greenhouse gasses, high levels of toxins, not to mention acid gases that are emitted from the waste incinerator. Clean Air Now references that these are negative repercussions legislators did not consider with the Renewable Portfolio Standard. The organization does not believe that CMI should be able to access credits that are reserved to encourage new construction of sustainable energy. Renewable energy projects such as solar, wind and small hydropower.
This opinion and opposition are also echoed by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters as previously mentioned. OLCV is a coalition actively protecting the environment through various projects. Members of the coalition partner with state and local governments to demand accountability for things such as clean air, clean water, and healthy forests. The organization seeks to promote elected officials who advocate for the environmental health of the community. Their recent endorsement questionnaire for 2022 candidates was centered around CMI’s progress. A primary concern is that CMI will continue to advocate for the use of renewable energy credits while continuing to emit harmful pollutants. They believe that continuing to allow CMI to operate goes directly against Governor Kate Brown’s executive orders to lower greenhouse gas emissions. (Loew 2021)
Governor Kate Brown’s ratified Executive Order 20-04 on March 10, 2020. Execution of this document instructed multiple state agencies to make immediate efforts towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These actions would be part of the State’s new reinforced efforts to combat climate change. Final reports that Brown relied upon showcase that climate change has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Important to note is that these were the same concerns expressed by the City of Silverton as mentioned earlier.
Community members such as Gary Miller went on public record for HB 4049. He stated that “ The largest barrier we face in making this important step to combat climate change locally, is the Covanta Marion incinerator. “He does not believe that the county and local community should be penalized and fined by CMI for not producing a minimum level of solid waste. Furthermore, that HB 4049 ‘is a huge disincentive for waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting, all of which are far less damaging to the environment and human health than the incineration of waste.” (OLIS HB4049 Comments). Local voices like Mr. Miller’s perspective matters. Public hearings within congress seem to be one of the few ways he can advocate.
Important to note however is that congressional action towards environmental policy is incredibly dynamic and in flux (Saltzman and Thompson 2014). More specifically, that renewable energy policy decisions and progress is in some cases less continuous and present unique challenges. (Karmazina as referenced in Wolters & Steel) It appears that in Marion County the unique challenges that face CMI are centered around representation and agreement of action on the county level. Marion county’s website currently claims that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency frequently inspect CMI. Echoing that CMI’s performs exceptionally according to their environmental compliance record. The county appears to be in support of CMI’s operations, despite its recent performance, violations and dissatisfaction from local cities, communities, and coalitions.
CMI was notified in June of 2019 that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was going to pursue action on the company for utilizing their emergency engine during non-emergencies. (Loew 2021) Upon investigation, DEQ found that in May of 2021, CMI caused elevated levels of carbon monoxide emissions because of blocks of concrete into one of the combustors. (Loew 2022). A fine was placed on the company for these elevated levels. This is not the first time in the company’s history of violations. Nothing of these violations is openly discussed on the county’s website. CMI continues to reflect exceptionally from the County’s perspective.
Covanta claims they are advocating in the best interest of the community. Their company stands behind the work that they do in protecting tomorrow through the responsible disposal of waste. They have transitioned into the private sector serving government contracts. In the final quarters of 2021, they were acquired by EQT Infrastructure V fund. Covanta maintains that this acquisition allows them to grow and expand opportunities as environmental stewards. Siting that their commitment remains to the communities they serve.
According to Marion County’s Environmental Services Division Manager, the county does not anticipate CMI’s change in ownership to impact service delivery. (Loew 2022) Prior to the acquisition, it was speculated that without the progression of HB 4049, CMI “would not be able to afford facility upgrades and would be at risk of closing. (Waste 360) It seems they have rectified this issue through their recent acquisition. But will a new company, a global player, advocate for the local communities of Marion County? Can we rely upon the world of the Environmental Services Division Manager that services will continue as normal? What if the current situation is still not what the community wants?
The duration of this next section will be short but effective in expressing my own personal beliefs towards this subject. I am currently in the process of running for Marion County Commissioner in the next upcoming election. I have previously engaged with the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and have been recognized and endorsed by their agency as a climate activist candidate in the upcoming 2022 election. My hope as Marion County Commissioner is to help bring awareness to the inequities faced by communities such as those surrounding the CMI. Furthermore, to help hold county government and other elected city and state officials to continue making progress. There appears to be a rising number of coalitions in the area, public opinion, and even city-wide reports issuing complaint against the facility’s current operations.
Saltzman & Thompson urge us to consider why is waste a problem? One concern has been that we’re running out of places to dispose of our waste. (p. 232). To some, CMI should shut down and Marion County should begin sending their solid waste to Coffee Butte (Loew 2021). Regardless, this still does not address the fact that we are running out of potential places to use. Organizations such as the Oregon PSR continue to educate local communities and elected officials on reducing consumption and increasing recycling efforts. Placing less requirements on CMI and other facilities to dispose of our waste. However, efforts like this are, as mentioned previously, diminished by fines that CMI places on the local community for not generating enough solid waste to the facility.
In overall conclusion, the current legislative policy battles that are occurring in Marion County over solid waste incineration continue to be in limbo. Coalitions such as the OLCV, Clean Air Now, and others continue to stand in opposition of the attempts made by Covanta to utilize renewable energy credits intended for new construction and improvements to combat climate change. Meanwhile, county government and local elected officials continue to state that services and operations at CMI are exceptional. They fail to acknowledge the justified concerns of nearby cities and neighboring marginalized communities. They fail to acknowledge the recent violations and fines addressed by the company as it relates to excessive carbon monoxide emissions. Recent acquisition of CMI appears to be of no concern to current county directors who advise that operations and services will continue as normal. Meanwhile, normal operations appear to be inadequate for based upon the communities’ standards and multiple bills in two different legislative sessions being stopped displays that. Although a frustrating battle that is still not over, time spent devoted to the topic is surely not wasted.
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