Renewable energy advocates and environmental organizations today denounced legislation introduced by Rep. Jon Brien (D-Woonsocket) that would overturn the state ban on municipal waste incineration and would define trash burning as renewable energy.
The bill would allow a municipal waste trash incinerator to be built in Woonsocket and is scheduled for hearing today in the House Committee on Municipal Government.
Although the bill is directed strictly toward exploring options in Woonsocket, opponents argue that it undermines the state law banning “waste to energy combustion of any sort or matter,” passed in the 1990s.
“Burning trash that could be recycled and producing toxic pollution is simply not the clean renewable energy Rhode Island needs,” said Sheila Dormody, New England co-director of Clean Water Action. “Rhode Island came to this fork in the road years ago and decided that we’d rather recycle our waste than burn it, and that we’d invest in real local, clean, renewable energy. That’s the direction Rhode Island needs to go to strengthen our economy.”
Brien believes Woonsocket should be allowed to turn its trash into a valuable commodity — energy.
“Every year we hear about how we’re running out of room at the landfill. Meanwhile, residents are paying through the nose for electricity that’s fueled by foreign oil, at prices that are skyrocketing,” Brien said. “It makes no sense to continue tossing our trash when we could be solving both problems by incinerating it to produce energy.”
Tricia K. Jedele, director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office, disagrees.
“Rhode Island law provides that it is a policy of the state that incineration of solid waste is the most costly method of waste disposal with known and escalating costs that would place substantial and unreasonable burdens on both state and municipal budgets to the point of seriously jeopardizing the public’s interest,” Jedele said. “The legislature should be able to answer the question of whether lifting the ban on incineration would be consistent with the well-vetted, carefully-crafted, longstanding waste management policies and objectives of the state before it considers bills that would erase that policy.”
According to the Energy Recovery Council, a national trade group of waste-to-energy businesses, 86 waste-to-energy plants operated last year in 24 states . They had the capacity to process more than 97,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day.
It is unclear if Brien’s bill will affect Woonsocket’s incinerator on Cumberland Hill Road. At the Woonsocket City Council meeting Monday night, Mayor Leo Fontaine said the Synagro project and the bill are unrelated.
“I think there was a connection made between the two that there really wasn’t,” Fontaine said. “We are in the process of talking with Synagro about them retrofitting a cryogen sort of operation to utilize some of the steam that’s being generated from their existing process, which, right now, does not appear to fall under the prohibition against what one would think of as waste to energy.”
A press release from the Rhode Island General Assembly references the Synagro project in explaining Brien’s proposal.
“Synagro, a Texas-based business that operates a solid waste facility in Woonsocket, is incinerating sludge on a daily basis in Woonsocket and Rep. Brien says he believes incineration should be explored as a way to eliminate the need for continual expansion of the state’s Central Landfill, while reducing Rhode Island’s dependence on foreign oil,” the release states.
Brien chairs the Municipal Government Committee which is scheduled to vote on the bill today. The legislation would remove a ban on waste-to-energy projects in Rhode Island, and allow one in Woonsocket, “provided it comply with all federal, state and local laws, including environmental and health codes, and it receive approval from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation,” according to the release.
Other environmental groups across the state issued the following statements:
- Save The Bay “opposes H5315, which lifts the state’s long-standing ban on incineration. Save The Bay was part of the coalition that worked to eliminate this polluting and wasteful handling of trash years ago. Resurrecting incineration now under the guise of ‘renewable energy’ would do double damage by diverting funding from clean, efficient renewable energy” said Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay.
- People’s Power & Light Deputy Director Karina Lutz: “Waste, as we know it, is not remotely renewable. Incineration doesn’t solve this problem, it just makes them harder to trace or take responsibility for the pollutants. Let’s stick with what we know makes sense — the existing definition of renewable energy — and scale it up, now!”
- Audubon Society of Rhode Island “has adopted a position against incineration of solid waste because the products and by-products of thermal treatment of un-sorted waste — smoke, vapors, and ash — are not re-integrated into natural systems without damage to the ecosystem that receives them,” said Eugenia Marks, senior director of policy. “Systems that separate wastes and manage them for appropriate reuse, recycling and lastly disposal are most compatible with the environment that supports life.”
- Sierra Club — “Our waste doesn’t pass the sniff test as a renewable energy resource and burning it to make energy is a bad deal for Rhode Island and the nation,” said Abel Collins, program manager for Sierra Club Rhode Island Chapter. “Producing less disposable packaging and goods in the first place is the easiest, healthiest, and most environmentally friendly way to reduce the burden on our landfills. Consequently, our country could save enough energy to displace any need for new power plants. The smart solution is to reduce, reuse and recycle as we build our new energy economy.”
- Environment Council of Rhode Island Education Fund — “ECRI was involved in the original movement to ban incineration in the late 1980s and early 1990s because it doesn’t benefit the state,” said Paul Beaudette, president of the council. “And the same holds true today, incineration still creates more toxic problems in the land, water and air than can be justified either environmentally or economically.”
- Toxics Action Center — “Rep. Brien’s push to lift the 20-year moratorium on trash burning is a foolhardy idea,” said Taryn Hallweaver, community organizer. “Incineration has been linked to increased cancer rates in neighboring communities and it competes with recycling programs. In fact, recycling saves three to five times the amount of energy that incinerators create — so if Rep. Brien is serious about reducing waste and conserving energy in Rhode Island, he should be championing the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.”