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Covanta waste-to-energy plant

Waste-to-Energy Facilities Under Fire

Covanta waste-to-energy plantWaste incineration is a hot topic in the US.

Proponents say incineration is the safest and best way to manage difficult-to-dispose of waste streams that can’t be reused or recycled. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that waste-to-energy plants pollute the air, which is part of the reason these facilities have been slow to take off in the US, compared to Europe, for example.

A December fire at a Covanta-operated incineration facility in Maryland added fuel to the fire. The Dec. 8 fire at the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility took 11 days to fully extinguish and is now under investigation by state officials.

As the Washington Post reports, firefighters who required medical treatment and their union filed a complaint with Maryland Occupational Safety and Health alleging that the county did not take proper safety precautions or make an adequate evaluation of the hazards at the site. Covanta maintains that facility conditions were not a factor in the fire.

The county’s Department of Environmental Protection is slated to present the results of its investigation at a Feb. 2 hearing.

Additionally, the Maryland Department of the Environment is holding a meeting today to discuss tightening the limits for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by Maryland’s two largest municipal waste incinerators, the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility where the fire occurred and the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co., or BRESCO, owned and operated by Wheelabrator Technologies.

Baltimore has long failed to meet federal standards for ground-level ozone and environmental groups blame the two trash incinerators, BaltimoreBrew reports. Incineration opponents attending today’s meeting will argue that waste-to-energy plants should be phased out in Maryland, and some say as much as 80 percent of the material the BRESCO facility burns is recyclable or compostable.

In an earlier interview, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer Paul Gilman said waste-to-energy plays a key role in sustainable waste management and helping companies including American Airlines and Subaru achieve and maintain zero waste to landfill.

“These companies have found that zero waste to landfill is a theme that really resonates with their client base and so they look to us, especially for hard-to-dispose-of materials like paint sludges that can be used to create energy,” Gilman said in an interview with Environmental Leader.

Covanta late last month acquired Waste Recovery Solutions and Chesapeake Waste Solutions, two environmental services companies located in Pennsylvania, for undisclosed amounts.

Despite controversies, the global waste-to-energy market is growing, and is projected to reach $43.96 billion by 2024, up from $25.3 billion in 2013.

As additional evidence of this in the US: last month Clean Harbors completed its $120 million waste incineration facility expansion in Southern Arkansas — the first commercial hazardous waste incinerator to come online in the US in almost 20 years, the company says.

According to the EPA, waste-to-energy plants actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere compared to landfilling. The agency estimates these facilities save about 1 ton of greenhouse gas emissions per ton of trash burned.

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