Covanta dioxin emissions, other concerns addressed

by Kelly Corbett
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The decision of what to do with the New Hanover County landfill will now be up to a new board of commissioners as the 20-year Covanta Energy contract proposal process continues.

The most recent question posed by Commissioner Rick Catlin concerned dioxin emission levels and the possible threat to public health.

If the prevention of significant air quality deterioration (PSD avoidance) option stays in the contract, the dioxin stack limit for the sustainable energy facility (SEF) is a nominal 13 nanograms per dry standard cubic meter, which is less than half the existing Title V permit level of 30 nanograms.

The addition of the PSD avoidance clause to the contract would increase the tip fee cost by an estimated $2.20 for residents per month and $15.92 per month for small businesses.

Brian Bahor, vice president of sustainability for Covanta Energy, said he and Tom Lyons, vice president of business development, are educating the new commissioners about the contract.

“Saying no to this facility is saying yes to a landfill,” Bahor said on Monday, Nov. 12.

The SEF manages tons of waste each hour with gas controls, but a landfill decomposes waste during a 100-year period, he said.

The question posed by Catlin about dioxins came too late, Bahor said.

“It’s good to ask questions,” Bahor said. “The timing was kind of odd.”

He said the majority of dioxins come from natural sources, and the largest risk to humans comes from eating food, not breathing air.

Kayne Darrell and Ashley Reed, members of Mothers United, said the Covanta proposal is a bad option for human health.

“The more I looked into it, the more alarming it got,” said Darrell, who is also the founder of Citizens Against Titan.

Reed said cancer springs to mind when she thinks of dioxins. 

“Without Titan [Cement], without the incinerator, we’re already the No. 1 county for emissions in the state,” she said, referring to a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency ranking.

Another concern is the fines Covanta has paid in previous years for exceeding emission levels, particularly dioxins.

Bahor said the $400,000 violation, a hefty and recent fine, in July 2011 was the result of a broken pipe found during a compliance test at Covanta’s Wallingford, Conn., plant.

“It’s certainly not a good predictor of the work at the SEF,” Bahor said. “… We are doing over 1,000 [compliance] tests a year. … Just because you have one exceedance doesn’t mean it’s inherently flawed.”

Darrell and Reed both said trash in the county is a complicated issue, but also a problem that needs to be fixed with some innovative ideas.

They said many community members are unaware of Covanta contract details.

“It’s not a black and white issue,” Reed said. “… My primary concern comes from the state of our air already.”

The first step would be intensive, public education about recycling, Reed said.

Joe Suleyman, NHC environmental management director, said county staff is comfortable with all Covanta contract aspects, including flow control and emissions levels.

“I think there is a lot of confusion there when you throw in cement plants compared to a sustainable energy facility,” Suleyman said.

He said the numbers do not translate.

A group of five sifted through about 45 ideas on Nov. 6, and focused on the goal of preserving the life of the landfill and access for future generations, Suleyman said.

He said some ideas are not viable because of per unit cost or lack of public acceptance.

“No ideas are off the table, but they do have to contribute to that goal,” he said. “… Shipping waste off-site, that’s still one we have to do our homework on.”

Also, he said the idea that recycling and sustainable energy facilities are not “diametrically opposed” as some people believe.

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