Two waste-to-energy plants on Long Island were among the nation’s largest emitters of mercury from incinerators in 2014, according to a recently released report that called most trash-burning operations outdated, costly to maintain and upgrade, and often located in low-income communities.
The report, by the New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center, cited federal figures in finding that waste-to-energy incinerators in Islip and Babylon were among the worst for mercury emissions among the 73 incinerators that remain in operation in the United States. Since 2000, 31 such facilities have closed, because of significant construction and maintenance costs, the end of their life expectancies and volatile revenue streams, according to the report.
“The incinerator industry is in trouble,” the report found, noting the facilities also face regulations that could make them unfeasible. New York state’s consideration of a carbon-pricing model for energy led Covanta, which operates the four Long Island facilities, including in Babylon and Islip, to say it faces closures if the state energy market operator implements the policies.
“Burning trash is one of the most expensive forms of energy generation in the U.S., with higher capital and fixed costs compared to other energy sources, including wind, solar, natural gas, coal and even nuclear power,” the report says.
Covanta took exception to conclusions in the report, calling it “clearly biased” and accusing the authors of “cherry pick[ing] data to paint a picture that is not reality.”
“These facilities perform well below state and federal permitted limits that have demonstrated protection of human health and environment,” Covanta spokesman James Regan said in a statement. “Like all combustion processes and nearly all waste-management processes (e.g. landfilling, composting, anaerobic digestion, recycling), energy‐from‐waste facilities have air emissions … It’s important not to look at those emissions alone but in relation to the alternatives on a life cycle basis.”
The report found the Babylon Resource Recovery facility owned and operated by Covanta was the top emitter of mercury of all incinerators in the country, with a rate in excess of 0.010 pounds of mercury per ton of waste. The MacArthur Waste-to-Energy facility in Islip is 11th on the list of mercury emitters, with a rate well below 0.0025 pounds per ton of waste, the study says. The figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History online database are for 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available.
“The emissions from these plants are really worrisome,” said Claire Arkin, spokeswoman for the Global Initiative for Incinerator Alternatives, a watchdog group that commissioned the study. With all such facilities, “You’re basically turning one form of pollution into another. Even with most sophisticated scrubbers, that material has to go somewhere. Either it’s becoming air pollution or wastewater sludge or ash.”
The group advocates for waste reduction processes, recycling and composting to cut waste streams, rather than burning waste.
A Babylon town spokesman didn’t immediately comment.
Martin Bellew, commissioner of Islip Town's Department of Environmental Conservation, said, "We just received the report, and look forward to reviewing it.”
Covanta countered that mercury emissions between 2015 and 2017 from the Babylon plant were only 4 percent of the allowable federal limit, and 11 percent at the Islip facility.
Regan said Covanta facilities “perform well below state and federal permitted limits that have demonstrated protection of human health and environment.” He said they also “avoid emissions that would have occurred at landfills — greenhouse gases and otherwise, including mercury.”
Fifty-eight of the 79 facilities that remain in operation are located in so-called environmental justice communities, comprised of low-income or communities of color, the report says, presenting “an affront to environmental justice as they contribute to the cumulative and disproportionate pollution placed on communities of color and low-income communities.” The Babylon Covanta plant is considered such a facility, according to the report.
The report notes that energy costs from waste-to-energy plants are high, and could go even higher, particularly in New York, which is considering a carbon pricing model that would penalize dirtier, nonrenewable forms of energy.
“The introduction of new carbon pricing policies in states like New York may mean that incinerators, which emit significant amounts of CO2, will face new financial challenges,” the report states.