The Corpus Christi Data Dashboard is a comprehensive map viewer that visualizes air and water quality data in Corpus Christi, Texas, utilizing FLIR imagery videos, air and water pollution monitor data, and facility locations.
FracTracker Alliance supports strong federal methane rules and urges further improvements that are needed to curb dangerous methane emissions.
Following an enormous gas leak in Jackson Township, Cambria County Pennsylvania, we mapped oil and gas storage wells and fields throughout the state and found that the majority of Pennsylvania’s storage wells were drilled prior to 1979, making them most vulnerable to well failures.
We are pleased to announce that FracTracker Alliance has been selected for two EPA grants totaling $925,302 to support community air monitoring initiatives in the Ohio River Valley.
FracTracker’s in-the-field inspections and updated analysis of CalGEM permit data shows that California’s regulatory practices and permitting policies risk exposing frontline communities to VOCs from oil and gas well sites.
David Hess reports on the pervasive & dangerous practice of waste disposal at oil and gas well drilling sites via “dusting.”
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance, contributed to the December 2020 memo, “Recommendations to CalGEM for Assessing the Economic Value of Social Benefits from a 2,500’ Buffer Zone Between Oil & Gas Extraction Activities and Nearby Communities.”
Below is the introduction, and you can find the full memo here.
The purpose of this memo is to recommend guidelines to CalGEM for evaluating the economic value of the social benefits and costs to people and the environment in requiring a 2,500 foot setback for oil and gas drilling (OGD) activities. The 2,500’ setback distance should be considered a minimum required setback. The extensive technical literature, which we reference below, analyzes health benefits to populations when they live much farther away than 2,500’, such as 1km to 5km, but 2,500’ is a minimal setback in much of the literature. Economic analyses of the benefits and costs of setbacks should follow the technical literature and consider setbacks beyond 2,500’ also.
The social benefits and costs derive primarily from reducing the negative impacts of OGD pollution of soil, water, and air on the well-being of nearby communities. The impacts include a long list of health conditions that are known to result from hazardous exposures in the vulnerable populations living nearby. The benefits and costs to the OGD industry of implementing a setback are more limited under the assumption that the proposed setback will not impact total production of oil and gas.
The comment letter submitted by Voices in Solidarity against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISIÓN) on November 30, 2020 lays out an inclusive approach to assessing the health and safety consequences to the communities living near oil and gas extraction activities. This memo addresses how CalGEM might analyze the economic value of the net social benefits from reducing the pollution suffered by nearby communities. In doing so, this memo provides detailed recommendations on one part of the broader holistic evaluation that CalGEM must use in deciding the setback rule.
This memo consists of two parts. The first part documents factors that CalGEM should take into account when evaluating the economic benefits and costs of the forthcoming proposed rule. These include factors like the adverse health impacts of pollution from OGD, the hazards causing them and their sources, and the way they manifest into social and economic costs. It also describes populations that are particularly vulnerable to pollution and its effects as well as geographic factors that impact outcomes.
The second part of this memo documents the direct and indirect economic benefits of the proposed rule. Here, the memo discusses the methods and data that should be leveraged to analyze economic benefits of reducing exposure to OGD pollution through setbacks. This includes the health benefits, impacts on worker productivity, opportunity costs of OGD activity within the proposed setback, and the fact that impacted communities are paying the external costs of OGD.
Please find the full memo here.
FracTracker and Public Lab, with support from Save the Hills Alliance, produced “Undermined,” an audio story featuring interviews with three residents impacted by the Hi-Crush Mine in Augusta, Wisconsin.
Working with the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, FracTracker Alliance filmed emissions from oil and gas sites that have been issued permits in California under Governor Gavin Newsom since the beginning of 2019. Using state-of-the-art technology called optical gas imaging (OGI), we documented otherwise invisible toxic pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) being released from oil and gas wells and other infrastructure. This powerful technology provides further evidence of the negative consequences that come from each issued permit. Every single permit approval enabled by decisions made under Newsom can have substantial, visible impacts on local and regional air quality, contributes to climate change, and potentially exposes communities to health-harming pollution.
Despite a stated commitment to transition rapidly off fossil fuels, California has issued 7,625 permits to drill new oil and gas wells and rework existing wells since the beginning of 2019 — that is, on Governor Gavin Newsom’s watch. This expansion of the industry has clear implications for climate change and public health, as this article will demonstrate.
In collaboration with Consumer Watchdog, FracTracker Alliance has been periodically reporting on the number and locations of oil and gas wells permitted by Governor Newsom in California. In July of 2019, we showed how the rate of fracking under Governor Newsom had doubled, as compared to counts under former Governor Brown. Since then we have continued tracking the numbers and updating the California public via multiple news stories, blog reports, and with a map of new permits on NewsomWellWatch.com, where permitting data for the third quarter of 2020 has just been posted.
Now again, the rate of new oil and gas well permits issued by the California Geologic Energy Management division (CALGEM) continues to increase even faster in 2020, with permits issued to drill new oil and gas production wells nearly doubling since 2019. But what exactly does this mean for Frontline Communities and climate change? To answer this question, FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog teamed up with Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project (CEP).
CEP’s California team worked with community members and grassroots groups to film emissions of methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from oil and gas extraction sites, including infrastructure servicing oil and gas production wells such as the well-heads, separators, compressors, crude oil and produced water tanks, and gathering lines. Emissions of GHGs, such as methane, are a violation of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) California oil and gas rule (COGR), California Code of Regulations, Title 17, Division 3, Chapter 1, Subchapter 10 Climate Change, Article 4, § 95669, Leak Detection and Repair.
The emissions were filmed by a certified thermographer with a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) GF320 camera that uses optical gas imaging (OGI) technology. The OGI technology allows the camera to film and record visualizations of VOC emissions based on the absorption of infrared light. It is the exact same technology required by the U.S. EPA under the rule for new source performance standards and the by California Air Resources Board for Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) to properly inspect oil and gas infrastructure. The video footage clearly shows the presence of a range of VOCs, methane, and other gases that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.
The footage shown below is in greyscale and can appear grainy when the camera is being operated in high sensitivity modes, which is sometimes necessary to visualize certain pollution releases. The descriptions preceding each video explain what the trained camera operator saw and documented. A map of these sites is presented at NewsomWellWatch.com.
Newsom Well Watch interactive map
Navigate to the next slide using the arrows at the bottom of the map.
Find the story map, and more by clicking the image below.
Case Studies on Permitted Sites
Cat Canyon Tunnell Well Pad.
Earthworks’ California CEP thermographer visited this site in December of 2019, and just happened to arrive while the operator (oil and gas company) was conducting activities underground, including drilling new wells and reworking existing wells. In 2019 the operator, Vaquero Energy, was approved to drill 10 new cyclic steam wells and rework 23 existing oil and gas production wells at this site.
The footage shows significant emissions coming from an unknown source near the wellheads on the well pad; most likely these emissions were coming directly from the open boreholes of the wells. The emissions potentially include a cocktail of VOCs and GHGs such as methane, ethane, benzene, and toluene. This footage provides a candid view of what is released during these types of activities. The pollution shown appears to be the result of an uncontrolled source commonly resulting from drilling and reworking wells
Additionally, inspectors are rarely, if ever, present during these types of activities to ensure that they are conducted in accordance with regulations. The CEP camera operator reported the emissions and provided the OGI video to the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. By the time the inspector arrived, however, the drilling crew had ceased operations. The inspector did not detect any of these emissions, and as a result the operator was not held accountable for this large pollution release.
In the footage below, the emissions can be seen traveling over the fenceline of the well pad, swirling and mixing with the wind. This site is a clear example of what to look for in the following videos, since the emissions are so obvious. Fortunately, there are no homes or buildings in close proximity to this site, which potentially limited direct pollution exposure — although the pollution still degrades air quality and can pose an occupational health risk to oil field workers.
South Los Angeles Murphy Drill Site
The Murphy Drill Site in Los Angeles has been a long-standing nuisance and source of harmful pollution for neighbors in Jefferson Park. The site houses 31 individual operational wells, including 9 enhanced oil recovery injection wells and 22 oil and gas production wells, as shown below in the map in Figure 1. The wells are operated by Freeport-McMoran, while the site is owned by the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles. The site is within 200 feet of homes, playgrounds and a health clinic. There are over 16,000 residents within 2,500’ of the site, as well as a special needs high school, an elementary school, a hospice facility, and a senior housing complex.
The neighborhoods near the Murphy Site are plagued with strong chemical odors, including those linked to oil and gas operations (such as the “rotten egg” smell of health-harming hydrogen sulfide), most likely from the toxic waste incinerators on site. Community members have suffered from respiratory problems, chronic nosebleeds, skin and eye irritation, and headaches. The operators have received multiple violations, including for releasing emissions at concentrations 400% over the allowable limit of methane and VOCs. Some of these violations were the direct result of complaints from the community and the Earthworks CEP team, which filmed pollution from the site on multiple occasions. Yet despite receiving “Notices of Violations” and fines, Freeport-McMoran has been allowed to continue operations. In OGI footage, emissions are visible continuously escaping from a vent on the equipment. While this leak has been addressed by regulators, each new visit to this site tends to result in finding new uncontrolled emissions sources.
South Los Angeles Jefferson Drill Site
The Jefferson drill site is very similar situation to the Murphy Site. The sites have the same operator, Freeport-McMoran, and surrounding neighborhoods in both locations have suffered from exposure to toxic pollution as well as odors, truck traffic, and noise. The Jefferson site has 49 operational wells, including 15 enhanced oil recovery wells, as shown below in Figure 2. In 2013 the operator reported using over 130,000 pounds of corrosive acids and other toxic chemicals for enhanced oil recovery operations. Regardless, an environmental impact report has never been completed for this site.
The site is located 3 feet from the nearest home, and the surrounding residential buildings are considered “buffers” for the rest of the neighborhood, which also includes an elementary school about 700 feet away. The site was nearly shut down by the City of Los Angeles in 2019, but is currently still operational. In 2019 the site was even issued a permit to rework an existing well in order to increase production from the site. The footage below shows a large, consistent release of pollution from equipment on the well pad. The plume appears above the site and is visible against the background of the sky. The Earthworks CEP team reported the pollution to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which conducted an inspection, stopped the leak, and issued a notice of violation and a fine. It is not clear exactly how long this pollution problem had gone unnoticed or unaddressed, and it is not unlikely that another leak will occur without being quickly identified.
Wilmington E&B Resources WNF-I Site on Main St
The WNF-I drilling site is located in Carson in the City of Los Angeles. Operated by E&B Natural resources in the Wilmington oil and gas field, the site houses 35 operational oil and gas wells, including 12 enhanced oil recovery wells and a wastewater disposal well. There is also extensive above-ground infrastructure on the well site, including a large, high-volume tank battery used to store oil and wastewater produced from numerous oil and gas wells in the area.
Using OGI, Earthworks identified a large pollution release from the top of the largest tank. In the video footage, the plume or cloud of gases (likely methane and VOCs) can be seen hovering over the site and slowly dispersing over the fence-line into the communities of West Carson and Avalon Village. Despite clear operational problems, CalGEM approved this site for two rework permits in 2019 and then three re-drills (known as sidetracks) of existing wells in 2020 in order to increase production. The SCAQMD reports that they have inspected this facility, but it is not clear whether this major uncontrolled source has been stopped.
Long Beach Signal Hill Drill Site
At an urban drilling site in the neighborhood of Signal Hill in Los Angeles County, Earthworks filmed and documented pollution releases from numerous pieces of equipment. The site includes 15 operational oil and gas wells operated by Signal Hill Petroleum and The Termo Company. Emissions of gases (likely methane and VOCs) were documented on infrastructure from both operators. At this site, Signal Hill Petroleum received a permit in April 2019 to rework an operational well to increase production. That well is located less than 70’ from a home.
While this site is located within Los Angeles County, it is outside the jurisdiction of the city itself. Any local protections for drilling sites within the Los Angeles city limits are not afforded to communities such as Signal Hill. This area that includes the Signal Hill oil field and the Signal Hill portion of the Long Beach oil field, where many well sites are unmaintained and oversight is limited — conditions that in turn can result in corrosion and pollution leaks. The SCAQMD inspected this site and reported that these uncontrolled sources of emissions have been addressed by the operator, but it is not clear if the emission have stopped.
Midway-Sunset Crail Tank Farm
This tank farm, located in Kern County, services a number of wells operated by Holmes Western Oil Corporation on the outskirts of the Mid-Way Sunset Field. Of the wells serviced by this site, permits were issued to four active oil and gas production wells in 2019. The permits authorized the operator to rework the wellbores in order to increase production. The site contains nine operational oil and gas wells, including eight production wells pumping oil to the surface and one wastewater disposal well. There are multiple homes near this site, within 400’ to the west and within 300’ to the northeast.
For each gallon of oil produced, another ten gallons of contaminated wastewater are brought to the surface. Using diesel or gas generators this wastewater is pumped back into the ground. California regulators have a bad track record of managing underground injection of wastewater, which is now under the U.S. EPA’s oversight. The groundwater in this area of Kern County is largely contaminated and considered a sacrifice zone.
The emissions from this site are from the pressure release valves on the tops of multiple tanks. The tanks store both crude oil and wastewater. The infrared spectrum allows the camera to film the tank levels, which are nearly full. As the tanks fill with more crude oil and hydrocarbon contaminated wastewater the head space of the tank pressurizes with more VOC’s. This footage was also filmed at night when emissions are typically much lower. During the day heat from the sun (radiative energy) heats the tanks and increases the head space pressure resulting in greater emissions. While the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) was notified of these uncontrolled sources of emissions, their own inspections of the site did not identify an actionable offense on the part of the operator and these uncontrolled emissions continue to be released.
Crude oil and wastewater storage tanks are a common source of fugitive emissions and represent the majority of emissions presented in this report. Some tanks and well-sites use best practices that include closed vapor recovery systems to prevent venting tanks from leaking, but the vast majority do not and vent directly to the atmosphere. In all cases, tanks and pipeline infrastructure use pressure release valves to vent emissions when pressure builds too high. This venting is permitted as strictly an emergency activity to prevent hazardous build-up of pressure. Vents are even designed to open and reset themselves automatically. Consequently, tank venting is a common practice and operators seem to often leave these valves open.
While the recently enacted California Oil and Gas Rule (COGR) places limits on GHG emissions from all oil and gas facilities, internal policy of the San Joaquin Air Valley Air Pollution Control District has previously exempted tanks at low-producing well sites from having to be kept in a leak-free condition, creating a regulatory conflict that air districts and CARB need to resolve. This type of emissions source is also difficult for regulators to identify during inspections, for a number of reasons. These valves are typically located on the tops of large tanks where they are difficult to access and view, and inspections and sampling can only occur by chance (i.e., when the valve in open). Further, these valves can be immediately closed by operators during or upon notification of an upcoming inspection.
New Permits: Moving in the Wrong Direction
When Earthworks CEP uses OGI cameras to inspect an oil and gas site in California, finding and documenting pollution releases is so common that it is the default expectation. Because of access and proximity limitations, it is possible that more pollution is being released from sites than CEP can identify. All of these examples of pollution, including releases of methane and VOCs, add up to potentially degrade air quality and expose Frontline Communities to health risks — as well as many others just like them. This summary represents a small collection of leaking well sites visited by Earthworks CEP, which have coincidentally received new permits to operate and rework existing wells since January 1, 2019. CEP has also documented many other hazardous cases, such as the Jewett 1-23 site in Arvin (shown in the footage below), that is persistently exposing elementary school students to VOCs. These sites surely make up only a small proportion of the polluting oil and gas sites in California that harm climate and health.
From the initial drilling of an oil and gas well, during production, and into subsequent reworks, all phases of a well’s lifetime result in unpermitted and undocumented fugitive emissions. Regulating emissions from oil and gas extraction operations has not been effective in California. Regardless of notices of violations and fines, polluting facilities and well sites continue to operate and even receive new permits. Even the COGR rule, lauded as the most stringent GHG emissions regulation in the nation is technically unable to eliminate or even identify these uncontrolled sources. It is clear that the only ways to reduce exposures to these emissions for Frontline Communities is to institute protective setbacks and stop permitting the drilling of new wells and the reworking of aging wells.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
In this article, we’ll take a look at the current trend in “re-branding” incineration as a viable option to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by our society. Incineration can produce energy for electricity, but can the costs—both economically, and ecologically—justify the benefits? What are the alternatives?
Changes in our waste stream
In today’s world of consumerism and production, waste disposal is a chronic problem facing most communities worldwide. Lack of attention to recycling and composting, as well as ubiquitous dependence on plastics, synthetics, and poorly-constructed or single-use goods has created a waste crisis in the United States. So much of the waste that we create could be recycled or composted, however, taking extraordinary levels of pressure off our landfills. According to estimates in 2017 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 percent of municipal solid waste is made up of organic matter like food waste, wood, and yard trimmings, almost all of which could be composted. Paper, glass, and metals – also recyclable – make up nearly 40 percent of the residential waste stream. Recycling plastic, a material which comprises 13% of the waste stream, has largely been a failed endeavor thus far.
Figure 1: A breakdown of the 267.78 million tons of municipal waste that were generated in the US in 2017. Source: figure developed by FracTracker Alliance, based on 2017 EPA data. Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
Nevertheless, of the approximately 400 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, only about 10% of it is recycled. The rest winds up in the waste stream or as microfragments (or microplastics) in our oceans, freshwater lakes, and streams.
Figure 2: Increase in global plastics production, 1950-2015, Source: Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782 Referenced in https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
According to an EPA fact sheet, by 2017, municipal solid waste generation increased three-fold compared with 1960. In 1960, that number was 88.1 million tons. By 2017, this number had risen to nearly 267.8 million tons. Over that same period, per-capita waste generation rose from 2.68 pounds per person per day, to 4.38 pounds per person per day, as our culture became more wed to disposable items.
The EPA provides a robust “facts and figures” breakdown of waste generation and disposal here. In 2017, 42.53 million tons of US waste was shipped to landfills, which are under increasing pressure to expand and receive larger and larger loads from surrounding area, and, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.
How are Americans doing in reducing waste?
On average, in 2017, Americans recycled and composted 35.2% of our individual waste generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day. While this is a notable jump from decades earlier, much of the gain appears to be in the development of municipal yard waste composting programs. Although the benefits of recycling are abundantly clear, in today’s culture, according to a PEW Research Center report published in 2016, just under 30% of Americans live in communities where recycling is strongly encouraged. An EPA estimate for 2014 noted that the recycling rate that year was only 34.6%, nationwide, with the highest compliance rate at 89.5% for corrugated boxes.
Figure 3. Percent of Americans who report recycling and re-use behaviors in their communities, via Pew Research center
Historically, incineration – or burning solid waste – has been one method for disposing of waste. And in 2017, this was the fate of 34 million tons—or nearly 13%– of all municipal waste generated in the United States. Nearly a quarter of this waste consisted of containers and packaging—much of that made from plastic. The quantity of packaging materials in the combusted waste stream has jumped from only 150,000 tons in 1970 to 7.86 million tons in 2017. Plastic, in its many forms, made up 16.4% of all incinerated materials, according to the EPA’s estimates in 2017.
Figure 4: A breakdown of the 34.03 tons of municipal waste incinerated for energy in the US in 2017
What is driving the abundance of throw-away plastics in our waste stream?
Sadly, the answer is this: The oil and gas industry produces copious amounts of ethane, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Plastics are an “added value” component of the cycle of fossil fuel extraction. FracTracker has reported extensively on the controversial development of ethane “cracker” plants, which chemically change this extraction waste product into feedstock for the production of polypropylene plastic nuggets. These nuggets, or “nurdles,” are the building blocks for everything from fleece sportswear, to lumber, to packaging materials. The harmful impacts from plastics manufacturing on air and water quality, as well as on human and environmental health, are nothing short of stunning.
FracTracker has reported extensively on this issue. For further background reading, explore:
- A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker (2/8/2017)
- Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure (5/3/2017)
- Piecing Together an Ethane Cracker: How fragmented approvals and infrastructure favor petrochemical development (5/31/2017)
- PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project: Risks of Bringing Plastic Manufacturing to Ohio (11/30/2018)
- Mapping the Petrochemical Build-Out Along the Ohio River (7/10/2019)
A report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity in 2019 found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 615 coal-fired power plants.
Figure 5: Projected carbon dioxide equivalencies in plastics emissions, 2019-2050. Source: Plastic and Climate https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/
Just another way of putting fossil fuels into our atmosphere
Incineration is now strongly critiqued as a dangerous solution to waste disposal as more synthetic and heavily processed materials derived from fossils fuels have entered the waste stream. Filters and other scrubbers that are designed to remove toxins and particulates from incineration smoke are anything but fail-safe. Furthermore, the fly-ash and bottom ash that are produced by incineration only concentrate hazardous compounds even further, posing additional conundrums for disposal.
Incineration as a means of waste disposal, in some states is considered a “renewable energy” source when electricity is generated as a by-product. Opponents of incineration and the so-called “waste-to-energy” process see it as a dangerous route for toxins to get into our lungs, and into the food stream. In fact, Energy Justice Network sees incineration as:
… the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste – far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy – far more polluting than coal burning.
Municipal waste incineration: bad environmentally, economically, ethically
Waste incineration has been one solution for disposing of trash for millennia. And now, aided by technology, and fueled by a crisis to dispose of ever-increasing trash our society generates, waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration facilities are a component in how we produce electricity.
But what is a common characteristic of the communities in which WTEs are sited? According to a 2019 report by the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located in communities of color and low-income communities. Incinerators are not only highly problematic environmentally and economically. They present direct and dire environmental justice threats.
Waste-to-Energy facilities in the US, existing and proposed
Activate the Layers List button to turn on Environmental Justice data on air pollutants and cancer occurrences across the United States. We have also included real-time air monitoring data in the interactive map because one of the health impacts of incineration includes respiratory illnesses. These air monitoring stations measure ambient particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the atmosphere, which can be a helpful metric.
What are the true costs of incineration?
These trash incinerators capture energy released from the process of burning materials, and turn it into electricity. But what are the costs? Proponents of incineration say it is a sensible way to reclaim or recovery energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill disposal. The US EIA also points out that burning waste reduces the volume of waste products by up to 87%.
The down-side of incineration of municipal waste, however, is proportionally much greater, with a panoply of health effects documented by the National Institutes for Health, and others.
Dioxins (shown in Figures 6-11) are some of the most dangerous byproducts of trash incineration. They make up a group of highly persistent organic pollutants that take a long time to degrade in the environment and are prone to bioaccumulation up the food chain.
Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high.
Federal EPA regulations between 2000 and 2005 resulted in the closure of nearly 200 high dioxin emitting plants. Currently, there are fewer than 100 waste-to-energy incinerators operating in the United States, all of which are required to operate with high-tech equipment that reduces dioxins to 1% of what used to be emitted. Nevertheless, even with these add-ons, incinerators still produce 28 times the amount of dioxin per BTU when compared with power plants that burn coal.
Even with pollution controls required of trash incinerators since 2005, compared with coal-burning energy generation, incineration still releases 6.4 times as much of the notoriously toxic pollutant mercury to produce the equivalent amount of energy.
Energy Justice Network, furthermore, notes that incineration is the most expensive means of managing waste… as well as making energy. This price tag includes high costs to build incinerators, as well as staff and maintain them — exceeding operation and maintenance costs of coal by a factor of 11, and nuclear by a factor of 4.2.
Figure 12. Costs of incineration per ton are nearly twice that of landfilling. Source: National Solid Waste Management Association 2005 Tip Fee Survey, p. 3.
Energy Justice Network and others have pointed out that the amount of energy recovered and/or saved from recycling or composting is up to five times that which would be provided through incineration.
Figure 13. Estimated power plant capital and operating costs. Source: Energy Justice Network
The myth that incineration is a form of “renewable energy”
Waste is a “renewable” resource only to the extent that humans will continue to generate waste. In general, the definition of “renewable” refers to non-fossil fuel based energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and biomass. Synthetic materials like plastics, derived from oil and gas, however, are not. Although not created from fossil fuels, biologically-derived products are not technically “renewable” either.
ZeroWasteEurope argues that:
Biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable.
Although incineration may reduce waste volumes by up to 90%, the resulting waste-products are problematic. “Fly-ash,” which is composed of the light-weight byproducts, may be reused in concrete and wallboard. “Bottom ash” however, the more coarse fraction of incineration—about 10% overall—concentrates toxins like heavy metals. Bottom-ash is disposed of in landfills or sometimes incorporated into structural fill and aggregate road-base material.
How common is the practice of using trash to fuel power plants?
Trash incineration accounts for a fraction of the power produced in the United States. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, just under 13% of electricity generated in the US comes from burning of municipal solid waste, in fewer than 65 waste-to-energy plants nation-wide. Nevertheless, operational waste-to-incineration plants are found throughout the United States, with a concentration east of the Mississippi.
According to EnergyJustice.net’s count of waste incinerators in the US and Canada, currently, there are:
- 88 operating
- 41 proposed
- 0 expanding
- 207 closed or defeated
Figure 14. Locations of waste incinerators that are already shut down. Source: EnergyJustice.net)
Precise numbers of these incinerators are difficult to ascertain, however. Recent estimates from the federal government put the number of current waste-to-energy facilities at slightly fewer: EPA currently says there are 75 of these incinerators in the United States. And in their database, updated July 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), lists 63 power plants that are fueled by municipal solid waste. Of these 63 plants, 40—or 66%—are in the northeast United States.
Regardless, advocates of clean energy, waste reduction, and sustainability argue that trash incinerators, despite improvements in pollution reduction over earlier times and the potential for at least some electric generation, are the least effective option for waste disposal that exists. The trend towards plant closure across the United States would support that assertion.
Let’s take a look at the dirty details on WTE facilities in three states in the Northeastern US.
Review of WTE plants in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey
A. New York State
In NYS, there are currently 11 waste-to-energy facilities that are operational, and two that are proposed. Here’s a look at some of them:
The largest waste-to-energy facility in New York State, Covanta Hempstead Company (Nassau County), was built in 1989. It is a 72 MW generating plant, and considered by Covanta to be the “cornerstone of the town’s integrated waste service plan.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database, this plant has no violations listed. Oddly enough, even after drawing public attention in 2009 about the risks associated with particulate fall-out from the plant, the facility has not been inspected in the past 5 years.
Other WTE facilities in New York State include the Wheelabrator plant located in Peekskill (51 MW), Covanta Energy of Niagara in Niagara Falls (32 MW), Convanta Onondaga in Jamesville (39 MW), Huntington Resource Recovery in Suffolk County (24.3 MW), and the Babylon Resource Recovery Facility also in Suffolk County (16.8 MW). Five additional plants scattered throughout the state in Oswego, Dutchess, Suffolk, Tioga, and Washington Counties, are smaller than 15 MW each. Of those, two closed and one proposal was defeated.
In Pennsylvania, six WTE facilities are currently operating. Two have been closed, and six defeated.
C. New Jersey
And in New Jersey, there are currently four operating WTE facilities. Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, is New Jersey’s largest WTE facility. It opened in 1990, houses three burners, and produces 93 MW total.
Union County Resource Recovery Facility, which opened in 1994, operates three burners, producing 73 MW total. Covanta Camden Energy Recovery Center opened in 1991. It has 13 burners, producing a total of 46 MW. Wheelabrator Gloucester LP (Westville, NJ) opened in 1990. The two burners there produce 21 MW of power. Covanta Warren Energy is the oldest and smallest WTE facility in New Jersey. It produced 14 MW of energy and opened in 1988. Operations are currently shut down, but this closure may not be permanent.
Throw-aways, burn-aways, take-aways
Looming large above the arguments about appropriate siting, environmental justice, financial gain, and energy prices, is a bigger question:
How can we continue to live on this planet at our current rates of consumption, and the resultant waste generation?
The issue here is not so much about the sources of our heat and electricity in the future, but rather “How MUST we change our habits now to ensure a future on a livable planet?”
Professor Paul Connett (emeritus, St. Lawrence University), is a specialist in the build-up of dioxins in food chains, and the problems, dangers, and alternatives to incineration. He is a vocal advocate for a “Zero Waste” approach to consumption, and suggests that every community embrace these principles as ways to guide a reduction of our waste footprint on the planet. The fewer resources that are used, the less waste is produced, mitigating the extensive costs brought on by our consumptive lifestyles. Waste-to-energy incineration facilities are just a symptom of our excessively consumptive society.
Dr. Connett suggests these simple but powerful methods to drastically reduce the amount of materials that we dispose — whether by incineration, landfill, or out the car window on a back-road, anywhere in the world:
- Source separation
- Door-to-door collection
- Building Reuse, Repair and Community centers
- Implementing waste reduction Initiatives
- Building Residual Separation and Research centers
- Better industrial design
- Economic incentives
- Interim landfill for non-recyclables and biological stabilization of other organic materials
Connett’s Zero Waste charge to industry is this: “If we can’t reuse, recycle, or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Reducing our waste reduces our energy footprint on the planet.
In a similar vein, FracTracker has written about the potential for managing waste through a circular economics model, which has been successfully implemented by the city of Freiburg, Germany. A circular economic model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.
This is an important vision to embrace. Every day. Everywhere.
- “U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline,” Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School. May, 2019. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d14dab43967cc000179f3d2/t/5d5c4bea0d59ad00012d220e/1566329840732/CR_GaiaReportFinal_05.21.pdf
- For more in-depth and informative background on plastic in the environment, please watch “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/). The producers of the film encourage holding group discussions after the film so that audiences can actively think through action plans to reduce plastic use.
Figure 17: Illustration of common waste streams from “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/)