This month marks the six-year anniversary of the opening of the Spokane waste-to-energy facility. Since it began full operation in October 1991, almost 4 billion pounds of garbage have been destroyed at the facility without any measurable impact to human health or the Spokane environment. That’s about 150,000 full garbage trucks lined up end-to-end from here to San Francisco that would otherwise have gone to landfills.
OK, you might say, so we don’t have more leaking landfills to contend with, thanks to the facility. But what of the health effects of burning a volume of waste that immense? How do we know the waste isn’t just going up the stack and will cause me health problems?
To address this concern, four health-risk assessments of the Spokane waste-to-energy facility have been completed in the last decade. Although all were completed with different methodologies, they have all shown steadily declining off-site risks since the first report was completed in 1986. These reductions are almost solely due to the ongoing reduction in emissions achieved by the plant, relative to initial estimates and since the plant began operation in 1991.
The two most recent studies are quite different from the two completed before the facility was built. Before 1991, nothing was being emitted, and therefore, there was nothing to measure in the environment. Without real data, Spokane was limited to paper-based risk assessments, which use computer models to simulate what goes up the stack, where it goes, who it impacts and what the health effects are likely to be. Where data are incomplete or unavailable, risk assessments make conservative assumptions to ensure the off-site risks aren’t underestimated.
All that changed once the facility went online. Although such studies are rarely done, the city and county undertook a study to be certain the earlier paper estimates were not underestimating actual facility impacts. They did this by measuring lead, mercury, dioxins and other compounds in the air and soil surrounding the facility. They measured these compounds at the locations where the impacts were likely to be highest - very close to the facility property line.
The Washington state Department of Ecology required the study and underwrote the $300,000 cost, pending its acceptance of the results.
The results exceeded most expectations. For example, measured off-site concentrations of mercury are 50,000 times below the level of health concern at the nearest residences. These residences are part of the now-unoccupied housing area for Fairchild Air Force Base. Concentrations as you move away from the facility are correspondingly lower and below analytical limits of detection.
These results make it clear that testing the hair, blood, urine and/or breast milk of Spokane residents, as has been proposed, would not be a productive exercise. Emissions from the facility are simply too low to be detectable in anyone being exposed, nor are there enough residents being exposed to generate meaningful results.
There is nothing unique enough about the facility emissions that would allow us to know how much of, say, certain metals measured in any Spokane resident is due to facility emissions and how much is due to a fish dinner the subject ate the night before testing.
Novel studies such as Spokane’s benefit from as much external technical review as possible, both to provide an opportunity for outside challenge of the study methods and to ensure the scientific integrity of the data upon which we base our conclusions. Interim and final results have been reported in three papers and presentations over the past several years, most recently in May 1997.
These efforts indicate the Spokane facility may be the most thoroughly investigated waste-to-energy facility in the nation, with among the lowest risks recorded anywhere.
But the story does not end there. In a peculiar twist, the state Department of Ecology’s consultant on this project, the state Department of Health, has taken issue with these results, suggesting the city go back and prepare yet a fifth paper estimate of the health effects of this facility. Yes - after 10 years, six stack tests, four health studies and several hundred samples of the environment surrounding the facility, Olympia is asking Spokane to estimate and defend on paper what it has already measured in the field.
Somewhat curiously, in recent correspondence to the city, Olympia has indicated that it feels these paper estimates will give a more “accurate” portrayal of off-site concentrations and risks than the actual measurements the city has already taken. How it comes to that conclusion is not clear. Nonetheless, the state Department of Ecology is withholding the final $100,000 payment to the city until this additional work is done.
What should be even more disturbing to taxpayers is that complying with Olympia’s request may cost half a million dollars or more - twice as much as the last three studies combined - to generate less-meaningful results.
To some, Olympia’s request to essentially ignore hard data in favor of computer-generated estimates loses sight of the fact that computer models were developed as surrogates for real data and not the other way around.
At this writing, DOE has not decided whether to refund the city the final $100,000 for its study. Hopefully, DOE will decide in hindsight that the environmental health impact study, like the notice of violation it issued for facility operations during the ice storm, is an issue that should have been handled differently.
But whether or not Olympia reimburses the city, the data speak for themselves. To destroy 4 billion pounds of Spokane garbage without any demonstrated impact, leaving only incombustible residue for landfilling, is a remarkable achievement. It is one that any true Spokane environmentalist should be proud of.