Opinion: Plymouth Township councilmember’s justification for Covanta decision does not hold up to scrutiny

On Monday night, Councilmember Chris Manero was the surprise third vote for another two years of burning Plymouth’s trash at Covanta’s incinerator. Many people felt betrayed and expressed their outrage, demanding an explanation from Manero, who was just re-elected last week.

In his public explanations, he justified his decision based on the following ideas, none of which hold up to scrutiny:

1) that a “short two-year extension… gives us time to explore other longer-term options of what to do with our waste, …allows Covanta time to prove that they can operate more safely, and it gives our attorneys and engineers more time to uncover any misdeeds or improprieties within the Covanta operation.”

2) that trucking is a major reason to prefer burning at Covanta. In further responses, he states:

“Hauling our waste elsewhere puts our trucks on the road for a much longer time. Our public works employees who haul our trash also perform other jobs in the township.”

“Snow… many of our drivers are also the ones who turn right around after hauling trash and jump in a truck to plow snow.”

“The environmental impact of our trucks on the road for much longer periods is also a concern. I know these sound like excuses, but when you take the massive public works operation that we have and you start to add significant hours onto the largest daily function, the difficulties mount.”

Trucking is not an issue

Trash is already being trucked in the form of incinerator ash to two landfills, Rolling Hills in Berks County, and SECCRA in Chester County. Each is about 40 miles away. This is nothing in terms of typical trash hauling distances. PA imports trash from Canada down through Florida and Puerto Rico, and every state in-between. In fact, 65% of Montgomery County’s trash goes places other than Covanta Plymouth, and 64% of it goes to landfills outside of the county (the last landfill in the county, in Pottstown, closed years ago).

If you look at emissions from those trucks compared to the emissions from incineration, it’s truly insignificant. A life cycle analysis done for Washington, DC in 2017 by a published expert in the field, looked at 10 environmental criteria and compared trucking waste 26 miles to a Covanta incinerator in Lorton, VA vs. trucking to landfills as far as 130 miles away. The result? It was far worse to incinerate close to home than to truck waste five times as far to a landfill. In fact, the trucking emissions were so insignificant that they barely registered on the charts. This is described in slides 26-59 in this powerpoint presentation regarding Montgomery County, Maryland, where residents are also working to close a Covanta incinerator that is the largest air polluter in their county, just like here. Slides 38-48 are the direct results of the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). If trucking were significant, you’d see a big difference between trucking it to a landfill 68 miles away (the blue lines) vs. 130 miles away (the red lines). You see no difference, or almost no difference. The emissions from trucking are dwarfed by the emissions from the waste facilities themselves.

There are three trash transfer stations that are just three miles from Covanta, where trucks could haul the Township’s trash to competitors who haul to landfills in the region. If the argument is over wear and tear on the Township’s own trucks, or turn-around time, the extra few miles is very trivial. It’s rare that a community has so many options in such a small distance. The Township can haul to one of three transfer stations and let one of these waste companies haul it to landfills in their own trucks.

Two years is not short

In terms of waste contracts, two years is indeed short. However, the past year has been a long one for local residents having to live with regular “burning plastic” or “electrical fire” odors, respiratory stress, noise, and the fear of not knowing how much pollution is being released from their regular malfunctions. Two more years of this is intolerable.

Alternatives are known

Of course, the real alternative to incineration is Zero Waste, which involves redesigning products, reducing consumption, reusing, recycling, composting, and pre-processing waste before any remainder goes to a landfill. There is a landfill at the end of the pipe no matter what you do. When you burn trash, 70% becomes air pollution, and the other 30% is trucked to landfills, making for smaller, but more toxic landfills. The least bad immediate option is to landfill directly rather than burn first. The alternative of hauling to nearby transfer stations for that purpose is readily available and doesn’t take study. This information has already been shared with Manero and other Township officials.

Covanta cannot operate safely

Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or to make energy. It’s dirtier than burning coal and is worse than directly using landfills.  The Township doesn’t need to keep supplying Covanta with money and trash in order for their attorneys and engineers to have “more time to uncover any misdeeds or improprieties within the Covanta operation.” In fact, the Township attorneys and engineers are not equipped to investigate the plant directly until they pass a local law to regulate Covanta, which can be locally enforced. The fact is that Covanta is an aging facility that is having serious problems that cannot be easily fixed. The plant needs to be retired, not be given more chances after a long year of mishaps, unmonitored pollution, and lies claiming that the odors didn’t come from them. Even in their first 26 years, before the regular malfunctions, Covanta has been the county’s largest single air polluter by far. There was never anything “safe” about their operation.

Earlier this year, Baltimore City Council unanimously passed the Baltimore Clean Air Act, designed to force the two waste incinerators in their borders to clean up or close down by September 2020. Federal and state law clearly authorize Pennsylvania’s local governments to adopt clean air laws as strict or stricter than the state and federal minimums. Plymouth Township could do the same as Baltimore, but is being misled by their solicitor’s claims that this cannot be done in Pennsylvania. In fact, it can and has been done, by a handful of municipalities in our state. Every one of these, as well as Baltimore’s law, and another in upstate New York, came as a result of legal work we at Energy Justice Network have done to assist communities. We’d be happy to do the same with Plymouth Township.

Municipal officials have an obligation to look out for the health, safety and welfare of their residents, and to uphold the state’s constitutional rights of the people to clean air. Fulfilling these legal obligations, in this case, means not approving waste contracts to burn trash, and passing a Plymouth Township Clean Air Ordinance so that the Township can properly protect its residents.

Provided by:
Mike Ewall, Esq. is Founder and Director of Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, a national support group for communities fighting for clean air and zero waste by stopping dirty energy and waste facilities. He has designed the Zero Waste Hierarchy that is used as an international standard, and specializes in local clean air laws, teaching legal education courses on the matter. Active in the issue for nearly 30 years, he’s a national leader supporting communities to end incineration.