Oregon's Medical Waste Incineration Act - SB 488

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Covanta waste incinerator, Chester, PA. Image courtesy of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living.

Chief Co-Sponsors: Sen. Patterson, Sen. Manning and Rep Neron
Co-Sponsors: Senators Campos, Gelser Blouin and Golden


Medical waste incineration is outdated and unnecessary!

The passage of Oregon's Medical Waste Incineration Act, SB 488 is critical to achieving clean air for the people of Oregon, particularly those living in the mid-Willamette Valley. The large amounts of air toxics emitted from Covanta’s stack has impacted human and environmental health around Marion county for over 30 years.

SB 488 will close a regulatory loophole in Oregon’s air quality laws that allows a municipal waste (trash) incinerator to burn large amounts of medical and industrial waste, including waste trucked in from out-of-state.

Greater volume means more toxic pollutants

Each year, Covanta Marion, Oregon’s municipal waste incinerator, burns more than 176,000 tons of municipal, medical and industrial waste. In recent years, this incinerator has steadily increased the amount of out-of-state hospital and medical waste they burn. Burning medical waste, which is often plastics such as PVC, is known to emit more toxic pollutants than most municipal waste due to the complex nature of medical waste. As medical waste incineration increases, emissions of dioxin compounds and other dangerous chemicals also increase.

Environmental Justice

Trash dumps and waste incineration are, and have always been, an environmental justice issue because these polluting facilities are routinely placed in low-income and communities of color. SB 488 will close loopholes in the law that will reduce emissions from waste incinerators and provide a much-needed update to Oregon clean air laws. The result will be improved air quality for communities around waste incinerators now and into the future.

As outlined below, burning medical waste in a trash incinerator is only viable because of a federal loophole that allows weaker standards.

  • Waste Incineration is a source of highly toxic air emissions and climate pollutants
    Incineration converts trash into toxic air, water and soil pollutants which disperse across communities.

  • Waste incineration is a large source of greenhouse gas, lead, ammonia, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium (VI), hydrochloric acid, mercury, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and sulfur dioxide emissions.
    Waste incineration pollutes soils, rivers, and the air with heavy metals and toxic chemicals where they can harm human health and wildlife. Heavy metal ingestion by children causes learning disabilities, lowered IQ, hyperactivity, and attention deficit. 1, 2

  • Incineration of solid waste also creates new compounds like dioxins and furans, the most toxic class of chemicals known.
    Dioxins are formed when organic materials (e.g., wood and paper) are burned in the presence of chloride products (e.g., PVCs from medical waste plastics). Dioxins are carcinogenic, cause birth defects, disrupt endocrine systems, suppress the immune system, and decrease fertility. 3

Does Oregon have a solid waste incinerator and what do we know about it?

Yes. The Covanta Marion incinerator is located in Marion County between the cities of Salem and Woodburn. The facility became operational in 1986. Now over 36 years old, Covanta Marion is older than the average useful life of most incinerators. A few facts:

  • Each year the incinerator burns more than 176,000 tons of municipal, medical and industrial waste.

  • Covanta Marion imports approximately 10,000 tons of out-of-state hospital and medical waste on an annual basis. This is over five times the amount that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to classify a medical waste incinerator as “large.”

  • A contract with Marion County allows the Covanta incinerator to burn up to 18,000 tons of out-of-state medical waste.

  • Covanta’s emissions levels exceed limits for large new medical waste incinerators. 4 | See the Covanta Marion table

Covanta Marion’s Municipal versus medical waste incineration: the regulatory loophole

Federal regulations for medical waste incinerators are far stricter than those for municipal waste (trash) incinerators. However, a loophole in EPA regulations allows an incinerator classified as a “municipal waste incinerator” to burn significant amounts of medical waste without being held to the much stricter medical waste incinerator emissions limits. Burning medical waste, which is often plastics such as PVC, is known to emit more toxic pollutants than most municipal waste. This regulatory loophole allows the Oregon’s waste incinerator to be regulated under the weaker regulations governing municipal waste incinerator.

As a result, Covanta Marion can burn thousands of tons of imported medical waste while taking advantage of weaker municipal trash incinerator regulations. This makes Oregon a dumping ground for the toxic pollution that other states don’t want.

SB 488 provides measurable protection by reducing air toxics emissions

By closing the regulatory loophole, SB 488 will appropriately regulate a large polluter and ensure stronger environmental protection and public health outcomes for all Oregonians. If passed, Oregon will apply the EPA’s stricter air pollution limits to any incinerator burning enough medical waste to be classified as a large medical waste incinerator. Should a facility exceed the allowed weight of medical waste that gets incinerated, the Oregon DEQ will have the authority to apply the stricter air pollution emission limits required for medical waste incinerators set under federal law.

See Resources below

 

Background

Covanta Marion and its pollution has been our focus since 2018. In our role as clean air watchdog, Beyond Toxics advocates for policies and regulations that will protect downwind communities from Covanta Marion’s high emissions of toxic pollution. That's why we advocate for SB 488 to regulate Covanta Marion as a Large Hospital and Medical Waste Incinerator due to the large volume of medical waste it burns. Despite the process to issue Covanta a new permit under the Cleaner Air Oregon air quality regulatory program, Oregon's laws are far too weak to substantially reduce community exposure to dioxins, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals from Covanta's stack and ash piles. Beyond Toxics was instrumental in stopping SB 451, a 2019 bill introduced (at the request of Covanta) to increase their profits by trying to sell electricity at higher rates as a “renewable” energy facility. Incinerating waste is not renewable - Oregon must advance zero- waste practices, not incentivize corporations that profit off more waste! We've consistently worked with the community downwind of Covanta and Clean Air Now, a community-based coalition. Environmental monitoring and public education are central to our work. Find out more

References

(1) Lee MJ, et al., Heavy Metals' Effect on Susceptibility to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Implication of Lead, Cadmium, and Antimony. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Jun 10;15(6):1221. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15061221.

(2) Zhou, Y; Ma, W., Heavy metal exposure and children's health. Springer 2020.

(3) U.S. EPA, Learn About Dioxin. accessed 1/14/2023 at https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin

(4) Source: Oregon DEQ, 2020 Review Report/Permit No.: 24-5398-TV-01 Covanta Marion, p. 72

Resources

To learn more about what we are doing to address and reduce the harmful air toxics emitted from Covanta, review below a selection of our research, environmental monitoring reports, blogs and public testimony submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality. News articles can be found on our In the News resources page.