Study shows higher heavy metal concentrations near Covanta incinerator


A new study of pollutants in moss near the Covanta Marion garbage incinerator shows elevated levels of heavy metals from samples taken closest to the facility, located north of Salem in Brooks.

The study was too small to be conclusive, say its authors, but the results indicate the need for further testing.

“Using the (nearest) sample as an indicator, there is reason to suspect that high levels of heavy metal pollution are being introduced into the air in the area near the incinerator,” says the report by Advantage Environmental, based in Vancouver, Washington.

Beyond Toxics, a Eugene environmental justice nonprofit, funded the study, which took samples of moss near schools at varying distances from the incinerator.

Executive director Lisa Arkin said the group is frustrated with the slow pace of Oregon’s Cleaner Air Oregon program, intended to close a loophole in state law that allows polluters to emit dangerous levels of chemicals. toxic while operating legally.

Governor Kate Brown launched the program in 2016, after a US Forest Service moss study found that a neighborhood in Portland had been contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals from nearby Bullseye Glass.

Covanta was among the first 20 polluters called into the program in March 2019. All were expected to complete “risk assessments” within a year. So far, none are complete.

“After hearing concerns about air toxic emissions from local community members, we asked the DEQ to do more environmental sampling. The agency consistently refused,” Arkin said.

“We believe environmental sampling is necessary due to the age of the incinerator, the amount of medical waste they process, other types of industrial waste they accept for incineration, the amount significant and varied types of air pollution they are responsible for, and the fact that the DEQ lacks a thorough process to determine the health risks of dioxin and heavy metal emissions traveling off-site” , said Arkin.

Moss as a bioindicator

During the winter of 2013, US Forest Service workers collected moss from 346 locations in Portland, testing the samples for heavy metals.

The study found two hotspots, where cadmium, a heavy metal that can cause cancer and damage the lungs and kidneys, was measured several times higher than elsewhere in the city.

DEQ tracked air monitoring and in 2016 found unhealthy levels of cadmium and arsenic, another carcinogenic heavy metal, in the air around Bullseye Glass in southeast Portland and Uroboros Glass in North Portland.

The companies met all state emission control requirements.

Scientists have used moss as a biological indicator of air pollution since the late 1960s, according to a Forest Service report on the Portland tests.

“Previous studies have shown that pollutant levels in foam correlate with atmospheric air pollution measured by instruments, suggesting that foam can supplement existing networks of air quality monitors” , says the report.

In its Covanta study, Advantage Environmental used the same sampling methodology as the Forest Service in Portland, albeit on a smaller scale.

Children play in a playground at Willamette Valley Christian School, one of several schools located near Covanta Marion, a waste management facility.  The researchers tested the foam near other schools for heavy metals.

The company sampled moss near three schools at varying distances from the incinerator.

The closest sample was taken near the old Brooks Elementary School, about a third of a mile from the facility.

The next was taken near the Chemawa Indian School, about five kilometers southwest of the settlement.

The farthest sample was taken near Gervais Elementary School, about five miles northeast of the facility.

Moss samples were taken at least one meter above the ground to avoid contamination from aerosols and pets. They were immediately stored at 39.2 F and then dried for 24 hours at 104 F.

The samples were then sent to Specialty Analytical in Clackamas for analysis.

The result: Foam collected near Brooks Elementary, closest to the incinerator, had twice as much barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury as that collected furthest from the site.

Moss data is an indicator, but does not include health thresholds. DEQ air monitoring would be required to determine if any hot spots are hazardous.

“Our hypothesis was that finding a pattern of heavy metals in tree moss consistent with proximity to the incinerator would suggest that heavy metal deposition is related to emissions from the incinerator (rather than other sources or the random presence of heavy metals) Our conclusion is that our hypothesis is supported by the data,” Arkin said.

“We are concerned about the impact of these pollutants on schools near the incinerator,” she said.

Additional sample requested

Covanta’s 36-year-old incinerator burns most of Marion County’s residential and commercial waste, generating electricity that it sells to Portland General Electric.

Neighbors and environmental groups have been saying for years that they don’t know enough about what the incinerator is burning and what comes out of its chimney.

They say they are particularly concerned about out-of-state medical waste being burned at the facility. This waste can contain high levels of plastics, which can create dioxins, particulates and other harmful pollutants when burned.

Beyond Toxics met with the DEQ on May 23 and asked officials to continue its study of the foams with additional air sampling.

“Our recommendation is that the DEQ test for heavy metals (and dioxins) in nearby locations in light of our preliminary data,” Arkin said. “We are concerned about the impact of these pollutants on schools near the incinerator.”

DEQ spokesman Harry Esteve said the department was still reviewing the report. But he downplayed its importance.

“A very preliminary review (of the Beyond Toxics study) shows heavy metal levels that are consistent with what we would expect in a populated environment,” he said.

Foam sampling can provide a screening for the presence of certain pollutants in the environment, but cannot be used to characterize emissions from a particular source, Esteve said.

“The moss sampling shows a cumulative sense of environmental impact and cannot provide any idea of ​​the timescale or indicate which direction the metals may have come from,” he said.

And, there are no health standards for metal levels in foam, Esteve said.

More valuable information can be provided by source testing or by measuring pollution levels as emissions leave the stack, which DEQ asked Covanta to do through the Cleaner Air Oregon program, Esteve said.

Covanta spokeswoman Nicolle Robles declined to comment on the study.

Clean Air Oregon Process

The Cleaner Air Oregon program is supposed to help the public know exactly what toxic chemicals are in facility air emissions, assess whether those contaminants pose a health risk, and, if necessary, reduce those risks.

DEQ has identified over 350 facilities for inclusion in the program. But at the current rate, it will take decades to reach them all.

DEQ said risk assessments are proving more difficult than expected.

“We have not reached the stage of obtaining a full risk assessment for any of these existing sources,” said JR Giska, an official with Cleaner Air Oregon. “No one has had to reduce risk yet.”

DEQ has granted Covanta five extensions to its November 2020 deadline to submit battery test results.

Covanta completed testing in March, but deviated from some elements of its DEQ-approved test plan. He retested some of those elements, but not all of them, Giska said.

DEQ deemed the data sufficiently representative to be used for the emissions inventory.

Testing is just the first step in the Cleaner Air Oregon process.

It will take the DEQ at least a month to approve the test data, Giska said.

Then, Covanta will have 30 days to submit a final emissions inventory to DEQ for review. Once this is approved, Covanta has 30 days to submit a modeling protocol, detailing how they will develop a model to examine how emissions are dispersed. Once DEQ approves the protocol, Covanta has 120 days to submit a risk assessment to DEQ.

The risk assessment will be used to determine if changes should be made to Covanta’s air quality permit.

Tracy Loew is a reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at [email protected], 503-399-6779 or on Twitter at@Tracy_Loew.


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