Trash-Burning Power Plants Wind Up in Our Most Marginalized Communities, Report Finds

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The Harrisburg incinerator in Pennsylvania
The Harrisburg incinerator in Pennsylvania
Photo: AP

Burning trash is still very much a thing. Incinerators that burn garbage to save landfill space are found across the United States, but especially in the Northeast. And as a new report out Tuesday shows, most are located near communities of color or low-income communities.

The report, published by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School with support from the anti-incineration activist organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, takes a closer look at this form of waste management and where it occurs. In total, more than 4 million people live near 73 incinerators not yet slated to close, which the analysis focused on. However, 40 percent of all 75 currently-operating facilities, which can emit lead, mercury and particulate matter among other pollutants, are located in communities of color that also experience high poverty rates. One plant in Baltimore, for instance, emitted nearly 300 pounds of lead in 2014, per the report’s analysis.

These are the people often left to deal with our nation’s pollution.

Robert Bullard, a professor of environmental policy at Texas Southern University known as the father of environmental justice, wasn’t surprised by that result. “It’s disturbing,” he wrote in an email to Earther, but the report “builds on four decades of environmental justice empirical research that shows all communities in the U.S. are not created equal.”


“This dumping pattern is not random,” he went on.

No new incinerators have been built since 1995 thanks to high up-front costs, lots of U.S. land available for landfills, and local opposition, according to the EPA. And since 2000, at least 31 have closed because they weren’t making enough money or upgrades were too expensive. The ones that remain, however, burn nearly 13 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste, usually fuel to make energy, which companies like Covanta then sell to make money, along with the money they earn taking the trash in.


The report authors used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to look at the pollution these plants emit. It found that some of the most-polluting plants spewed hundreds of pounds of lead and mercury into the air, both neurotoxins that can impede brain development.


The analysis’s method of assessing the demographics of the communities within 3 miles of this pollution is solid, said Paul Mohai, an environmental justice professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the distance between communities and hazardous waste sites.

“This is an approach my colleagues and I have termed ‘distance-based methods,’ which give the most accurate estimates of the demographics within uniform distances around hazardous sites,” Mohai wrote in an email to Earther.


He wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings, either, as they’re consistent with where we see our nation’s environmental hazards placed—whether it’s a radioactive dump site or lead-contaminated Superfund.

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Some might find the result that these plants tend to be found near low income and communities of color obvious. But that doesn’t make such research any less important. As Mohai noted, “Without this evidence, community claims about environmental inequality and discrimination tend to be dismissed by decision makers.”


And the fact that this issue of inequality persists shows the “deep-seated neglect and indifference to these impacted communities,” Mohai told Earther.

While many U.S. incinerators have begun to close because they’re old, they cost too much to run, and the energy many sell just isn’t competitive in this market, burning trash to produce energy is quite popular elsewhere, particularly in places that are more space-limited, like Sweden and Japan. Some see burning as a better alternative to extracting fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming, or landfills, which produce methane emissions (a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Incinerators also emit greenhouse gases, but that impact can be reduced by ensuring they’re burning minimal organic material.


That being said, even facilities using the most modern technology can’t avoid emissions entirely. And they don’t help us consume less to ultimately produce less trash. Many environmental advocates would rather see a zero-waste future where there isn’t any trash to burn.

With Americans producing more than 260 million tons in 2015, we’ve got a long way to go.