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Fighting the Nation’s Largest Trash Incinerator

Citizens in Logansport, Indiana, are fighting a proposal to build the country’s largest trash incinerator in their town.

Logansport, population 20,000, is located in Cass County in the north-central part of Indiana, on the Wabash River, 76 miles north of Indianapolis.

The City of Logansport has allocated $1.5 million to investigate, and prepare contracts for, the incinerator.

The incinerator, to be operated by a company named Pyrolyzer LLC, based in Baco Raton, Florida, is supposed to generate electricity by burning garbage and tires, although Pyrolyzer has never demonstrated that it ever generated electricity, and its longest-running plant operated for a total of 15 days in 2002. Pyrolyzer would supplant the city’s old, highly polluting coal-fired power plant, which is cheaper to shut down than to retrofit with pollution controls mandated by the federal government to curb carbon dioxide emissions and thus decrease climate change.

Pyrolysis, which Pyrolyzer LLC wants to use in Logansport, is a form of “staged incineration.” Its four stages are: (1) sorted municipal solid waste and tires are loaded into the pyrolysis chamber, (2) heat is applied to the outside of the pyrolysis chamber, (3) the waste is reducted to gases, char and ash, (4) the gases are “scrubbed” with water, and (5) the gases are combusted to power turbines to generate electricity.

Pyrolyzer LLC’s proposal claims that the incinerator would have “no emissions” or “very low emissions,” but other sources claim there are significant emissions. “Overall, identified emissions from staged incinerators include particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, carbon dioxide and furans. [Dioxins are the most carcinogenic chemicals known.] The core impacts of all types of incinerators remain the same: they are toxic to public health, harmful to the economy, environment and climate, and undermine recycling and waste reduction programs” (Industry Blowing Smoke: 10 Reasons Why Gasification, Pyrolysis & Plasma Incineration are Not “Green Solutions).

Incinerators emit fine particulate matter. Millions of air-pollution deaths result worldwide from particulate matter, composed of tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs to cause cancer and other respiratory diseases. Particulate pollution has also been linked to early death from heart disease (Science Daily, July 12, 2013).

An incinerator, the Energy Justice Network (EJN) says, is really a “trash-to-toxic-ash-and-toxic-air-pollution” facility. According to EJN, “Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste—far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy—far more polluting than coal burning”. The air pollution from incineration also contaminates the food chain.

Pyrolyzer wants to burn 6,000 tons per day of trash and tires in the Logansport incinerator. That amount is twice the city of Chicago’s amount of trash generated in a day and 27% of the state of Indiana’s trash generation per day. Logansport’s annual production, 5,000 tons of garbage per year, would not supply this facility for even one day. Pyrolyzer says approximately 100 railroad cars a day would bring trash to Logansport, but from where isn’t clear. (Mick Harrison, a prominent environmental attorney in Bloomington, has made an educated guess that the garbage is going to be transported from Chicago and New York.)

Pyrolyzer proposes using 3 million gallons a day of water from the Wabash River for “scrubbing” the gas the pyrolyzation stage produces. The company has said that wastewater would be processed by Logansport’s municipal wastewater plant, which already dumps untreated overflow into the Wabash River when heavy rains overwhelm the plant. The municiipal wastewater plant treats only organic pollutants; that raises the question of whether there might be heavy metals and other contaminants in the wastewater. The company is looking for a 90-acre site close to the railroad tracks and the river.

Logansport’s incinerator story began in November 2012, when the Logansport Utility Service Board (USB) released a rate study on its master plan, which recommended a switch away from coal to natural gas as a fuel for creating electricity. The rate study, which has since been shown to be inflated, stated that electric rates would have to increase 90% to fund the switch. Mayor Ted Franklin supported a study presented to the USB that same night that claimed that refuse-derived fuel was the wave of the future. He later revealed that he had begun working on a “green energy” project in February 2012.

At that same November meeting the USB decided to issue a formal request for proposals to generate electricity with refuse-derived fuel. Pyrolyzer LLC was one of the responding companies. Proposals were opened on January 11 of this year.

Pyrolyzer claims it would recycle what material it could. The company, however, has an incentive not to recycle materials like paper and plastics because they have high heat value.

Four friends in Logansport became suspicious of the Pyrolyzer project and began doing research and asking questions. Where would all that trash come from? Where would it be stored if the incinerator suffered a breakdown and couldn’t operate for awhile? What would the fly ash, or emissions from the smokestack, be composed of, and how much would there be? What pollutants would be in the bottom ash and char? What would the emissions be into the air, water and soil? What would become of the wastewater used to clean the gas manufactured in the pyrolysis process?

The citizens’ questions went unanswered. However, Mayor Franklin claimed, in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Pharos Tribune, that all the questions had been answered.

When citizens suggested that Logansport become a member of the Indiana Municipal Power Authority to obtain electricity inexpensively, public officials said they wanted to maintain their energy independence. When citizens suggested that the City consider renewable energy sources, public officials brushed them off by saying that the wind didn’t blow or the sun shine all the time.

Letters from the four citizens and others taking issue with the project started appearing in the Pharos Tribune in January of this year. During the following months the citizens attended city council and USB meetings and raised questions. They contested Pyrolyzer’s claim that dioxin could not be formed in the incinerator, noting that according to Pyrolyzer’s own proposal, all the ingredients for dioxin formation would be present. Further, they noted, an independent laboratory revealed dioxin emissions from a pyrolysis facility elsewhere.

On June 19 Mayor Franklin wrote a guest column in an online newspaper, Cass County Online, accusing the four citizens of protesting for the sake of protesting and brushing off their questions about the incinerator. On June 24 Mercedes Brugh, one of the original four incinerator opponents, replied in Cass County Online. First, she pointed out that the City had ignored solutions other than refuse-derived fuel. “The way the request for proposals was written,” she said, “set us on the path of incineration from the start.” Logansport, she suggested, should go further than the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. Environmental Agency, which occasionally spot check emissions from incinerators, and should require continuous monitoring of important pollutants, with the results available to the public in real time on a Web site, and with enforceable consequences.

If human health and the environment are at risk in Logansport, so is democracy. The four friends named themselves CARE, or Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy, and decided to hold a public forum on the project. In February Brugh asked the Chamber of Commerce, Community Foundation and Cass Logansport Economic Development Foundation to sponsor a forum consisting of a debate after which the audience could ask questions. When the organizations turned her down, she appealed to the League of Women Voters, with the same results. For their community forum held on June 26, the members of CARE had to use their own money, as well as an anonymous donation, to pay for renting a hall and hiring off-duty police. As Brugh pointed out, the City spent $1.5 million to hire consultants biased toward the project while the citizens had to use their own money to raise important questions that the public officials and Pyrolyzer hadn’t answered. “Isn’t that a comment on our democracy?” Brugh asked.

One hundred seventy-five people attended the public forum, while more “attended” via a live radio and television broadcast. A video of the event, in seven sections, is available on YouTube.

Despite the City administration’s favoring the incinerator, Brugh remains optimistic. CARE, she says, gained support and new members from the public forum. She said in an email on July 1, “It doesn’t matter whether we win because Pyrolyzer can’t get their permits from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management or from the Regulatory Commission (and we will take full advantage of opportunities for public comments), or whether the Department of Natural Resources will limit their taking 3 million gallons of water a day from the Wabash River when the river gets low in the summertime, or whether we win because [Pyrolyzer] can’t secure 20-year contracts for fuel, or whether the railroads can’t manage the extra train traffic, or they have difficulty getting new sidings built for storing the trains. . . . Recently CARE offered two ordinances to the Cass County commissioners. Indiana is a state that allows local governments to enforce more-stringent air emission limits than the state limits. One ordinance, setting up a permit procedure, has been used before in Indiana. The other ordinance, stating which pollutants must be monitored and which must be limited, has been used successfully in Pennsylvania. I’m encouraged that the county commissioners are taking a look at these ordinances. There are many ways to win this, and we will take a win wherever we find it. Actually it’s quite possible that this far-fetched project will collapse under its own weight without any help from us, but we are not counting on that.”

Linda Greene is an activist and writer living in the Bloomington, Indiana.

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