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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Burning trash for the planet? Climate cash sets off branding frenzy.

By Evan Halper Washington Post

The trash-burning industry was eager to show it is not a polluting relic but a pioneering clean tech sector worthy of millions of dollars in new federal subsidies. But its invitation to the Environmental Protection Agency to visit a Michigan “waste-to-energy” facility needed to be timed right.

“I don’t think we want EPA in the plant while we are setting off explosives in the boiler,” said a September email exchange between executives at Covanta Energy regarding the facility, which was about to go through the messy maintenance procedure. “The air will be filled with Ash dust and it may not have great optics.”

As the Biden administration allocates billions of dollars in new climate subsidies, environmentally challenged industries are sharpening their green pitches. The companies argue they are just as entitled to lucrative federal incentives as solar farms or electric carmakers, and are working to frame their businesses as global warming solutions. The money up for grabs from the Inflation Reduction Act and other programs are in amounts large enough to guide whether they thrive or go the way of leaded gasoline and asbestos.

A quiet lobbying campaign by waste incineration operations is documented in emails disclosed through public records requests, filed by the nonprofit Friends of the Earth. They offer a glimpse at how one beleaguered legacy industry is maneuvering to qualify for these federal dollars, saying their plants can help stop climate change at the same time environmental justice groups in the communities they serve are trying to shut them down.

“How can this be a climate solution at all?” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, a Newark activist working to close the waste-to-energy plant there, and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “They are discharging mercury, arsenic, lead. I hope no one falls for this scam.”

Covanta, the incineration company that sent many of the emails, told The Washington Post that the timing of the EPA visit to a plant it operated until earlier this year was not meant to mislead regulators, but to plan for a routine yet dusty process during which plants are typically closed for tours.

Companies that burn municipal waste are not the only ones working on their green credentials as regulators lean into the energy transition. Oil companies are pressing the case that a chemical process of melting down plastic and repurposing it for things such as jet fuel is not incineration at all, but “advanced recycling.” The embattled ethanol industry, burdened with scientific findings that its product has a heavier carbon footprint than gasoline, is positioning itself as the linchpin of climate friendly air travel.

The waste-to-energy industry is asking to be folded into a potential expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard program, a huge alternative fuels incentive that the EPA may modify to include producers of clean electricity that power electric vehicles. The companies that burn garbage are also eager to be certified as an energy provider for production of “green hydrogen,” a fuel that must be made with zero-carbon emissions electricity to fetch generous new subsidies.

It all hinges on regulators embracing the industry’s accounting methods for its carbon footprint.

“We are starting to push EPA and the White House,” said a February email from Paula Soos, head of government relations at Covanta Energy, which operates more than 30 U.S. plants where trash is burned to make electricity. She was writing Darwin Baas, the director of the public works department in Kent County, Mich., which has its own large incinerator. “This obviously would be a significant revenue stream to Kent (County) DPW,” Soos wrote.

Soos declined to be interviewed. But Baas and a Covanta spokesperson told The Post that it is too early to say how big that potential revenue stream is. Data in the records obtained by Friends of the Earth suggest the EPA subsidies could bring in more than $3 million annually for a similar plant in Pennsylvania.

Such revenue could be crucial to the survival of an industry that helps power millions of homes and businesses by burning trash to create steam used in electricity generation.

Four dozen incinerators across the United States have closed since 2000, according to the nonprofit Energy Justice Network, as community activists and national environmental groups target the technology as particularly harmful to the environment and public health. More than 80 percent of the remaining 60 facilities in this country are located in places where many residents are people of color or low income, according to a mapping project by the Tishman Environment and Design Center. Federal data shows they are emitters of toxins linked to medical problems, including particulate matter, dioxins, lead and mercury.

Industry officials claim the technology is more sustainable than landfills, which create a huge climate problem as rotting trash releases potent greenhouse gas emissions while slowly decomposing. Covanta said in an email to The Post that burning trash for electricity has cut landfill greenhouse gas emissions by 30 million tons per year, making the electricity they produce even more climate friendly than “traditional renewable like wind and solar when viewed from a lifecycle perspective.” It pointed to studies concluding the plants are not a public health hazard.

But arguments that turning the trash into electricity is a tidy, “circular” solution to the waste problem are increasingly met with skepticism by regulators in the United States and Europe.

California last year revoked a long-standing law that allowed trash burned at its two incinerators to be counted toward the state’s recycling and reuse goals, with lawmakers championing the change pointing to studies – disputed by Covanta – that found burning trash drives at least as much global warming as sending it to a landfill. A few years earlier, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) also cited climate and environmental justice worries when he vetoed provisions of a waste reduction law that would have allowed food manufacturers to comply by shipping their waste to incinerators that produce energy.

Denmark, where a trash-to-energy incinerator in Copenhagen is a national landmark, complete with a downhill ski run built into its sloped roof, is now decommissioning nearly a third of its trash burning capacity, citing climate concerns. Scotland has placed a moratorium on new incinerators in its bid to meet climate goals.

One potential lifeline for the industry in the United States is the Renewable Fuel Standard. The industry is hoping to be awarded proposed electric “renewable identification numbers,” or e-RIN credits, that fossil fuel producers could purchase to meet EPA mandates in lieu of making their own alternative fuels.

Emails show Covanta worked to keep its push for alternative fuel subsidies off the radar of environmental justice advocates. As part of that strategy, Covanta in February urged its allies to delay engaging in a separate battle in the administration over incineration pollution.

“We strongly believe if a letter goes out now … it will create a significant public uproar on [waste to energy], right at the very time we are trying to convince EPA that they can include [waste to energy] in the [Renewable Fuel Standard] without a lot of backlash,” said the email from Soos. “I think the timing is way off, and public controversy will undermine our e-RIN efforts.”

The EPA would not answer questions about its site visits and other engagement with the industry, saying in a statement only that it is working to finalize new rules for the alternative fuels program by mid-June.

Worries about the environmental justice optics emerge throughout the industry email exchanges. One Covanta official expressed concern that the group is highlighting the pollution controls in a York County, Pa., facility as part of its lobbying campaign. “I feel we need to include a facility that mirrors York that is an [environmental justice] community to show them we aren’t just careful in white communities,” he wrote.

In the shadow of the large waste-to-energy plant in Chester, Pa., a predominantly Black city, the air is heavy with an odor so foul that residents wear masks when they step out of their houses into the open air. Local activist Zulene Mayfield shows reporters the shell of a row home she said she abandoned when conditions on the perimeter of the 30-year-old plant became unbearable. Those that remain tick off the ailments they and their children are experiencing.

“This is dangerous,” said Darlynn Johnson, 40, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. Three of her four children, she said, have been diagnosed with asthma. The remaining child is one-year-old. “With him being out here, I know he is going to be diagnosed next,” Johnson said. “This is not okay.”

The health problems of the area, where children have asthma at five times the national average, are well documented, as are some of the harmful emissions that have come out of the plant over its lifetime. But the facility sits in an industrial hub, leaving researchers unable to link specific plants to clusters of disease. Covanta says pollution from the plant has been cut considerably over the years, and that its emissions are far below what federal standards allow.

In its email to The Post, Covanta said its goal is to get some of the same subsidies available to landfills that convert their emissions into energy. In a separate email, Baas said the federal money the industry is seeking would help keep his Kent County plant financially viable, at a time when it needs $40 million in upgrades and the energy it generates fetches lower prices on the electricity market than it did 30 years ago.

The corn ethanol industry has a similar problem. As the Biden administration writes the rules for generous new subsidies for climate-friendly jet fuels, corn ethanol may not make the cut. Several studies show that for much of the ethanol supply, emissions offer no improvement over fossil fuels.

Ethanol industry groups make the case that those studies are outdated and otherwise flawed. If the administration uses stricter standards, the ethanol industry group Growth Energy warns, “rural communities will be locked out from contributing to a cleaner climate, and our ability to decarbonize the airline fleet will suffer.”

But the Environmental Defense Fund and other advocacy groups say the industry’s arguments are exaggerated and often unsupported by science.

“If we get this wrong,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at EDF, “the taxpayer is not going to get fundamentally lower carbon fuel.”

The plastics industry is engaged in its own green branding blitz.

The industry has filed 17 permit applications with the EPA to make fuels from discarded plastics. The products could eventually be sold as sustainable aviation fuel – depending on how the administration drafts regulations – making them eligible for a raft of subsidies.

But the process typically used – called pyrolysis – is highly toxic, according to EPA data. The Natural Resources Defense Council describes it as “fraught with health, environmental, social, and economic concerns.” The plastics industry contends it’s safer than incineration and has another way of describing it: “Advanced Recycling.” ExxonMobil and other oil and chemical companies are promoting this process through a group called the “Alliance to End Plastic Waste.”

At the Plastics Industry Association “Refocus” conference in Minneapolis earlier this month, Melanie Bower, an ExxonMobil senior sustainability adviser, told colleagues in the sector to push the talking point that the process should no longer be subject to the same strict Clean Air Act rules as waste incineration, according to a recording of the panel shared with The Post by an attendee.

“It’s sad in a way that in the U.S. we’re faced with this false narrative that advanced recycling is incineration or burning of plastic,” Bower said. Congressional regulators see it differently than Bower. An advisory addendum the House Appropriations Committee sent President Biden along with the latest federal budget bill urges the EPA not to bend to the industry on Clean Air Act rules.

“These chemical recycling technologies do not result in the recovery of plastic materials to advance a circular economy,” the note said, “and the facilities contribute to climate change and impose disproportionate health burdens on the communities where they are located.”