PORTLAND — A report disputed by ecomaine suggests people within a 3-mile radius of the company’s incinerator on Blueberry Road are at an increased health risk due to the amount of lead emitted by the waste-to-energy plant.
Municipalities within the 3-mile radius include Portland, Westbrook, South Portland and Scarborough.
According to the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City, incinerators “emit significant amounts of air pollutants that can contribute to overall environmental and public health risks. Despite the existence of environmental regulations, state and federal regulatory agencies tasked with protecting human health are not doing enough to monitor and regulate this industry.”
The report was commissioned by The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, formed in South Africa in 2000 by more than 800 groups, organizations and individuals worldwide that envision a “toxic-free world without incineration.”
Claire Arkin, communications coordinator for GAIA, said the data used in the report comes from the 2014 Environmental Protection Agency National Emissions Inventory.
According to the report released last week, of the 73 U.S. incinerators studied, ecomaine was the seventh largest emitter of lead in the country, emitting 80.20 pounds of lead emissions in the year.
Ecomaine Communications Manager Matthew Grondin said the report is not accurate.
“We take exception with the characterization of the GAIA study that waste-to-energy is an industry in decline – ecomaine makes major annual investments in upgrading pollution controls and technology to ensure that we fall well below state and federally mandated limits for lead and all other pollutants,” he said in an email. “… Since 2010, ecomaine has averaged 42.3 micrograms of lead per dry standard cubic meter, where the allowable limit for lead is 400 micrograms per DSCM – nearly 90% below the allowable limit.”
While that may be the case, Arkin said, “the fact is, there is no safe level of these pollutants.”
The lead emitted can come from such items as car batteries, electronics, leaded glass and plastics, batteries, fluorescent tubes, thermometers and thermostats.
The reports states that low levels of lead exposure can disrupt the development of the central nervous system, especially during fetal life and childhood, and can affect nearly every organ system. Prolonged exposure may also increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease.
Grondin said the data used by GAIA in the report is outdated and in recent years ecomaine has been “well under compliance with the federal EPA and state DEP.”
“EPA has data as recent as this year, so I am not sure why they are using 2014 data,” he said.
“We are continually monitoring what comes out of our stack. It is 96 percent water vapor. It is mostly steam coming out, not smoke,” he added. “We are always looking at pollution mitigation techniques to neutralize pollution, as to not pollute with lead, or mercury or acidic gases.”
Grondin said ecomaine processes municipal solid waste from 73 member communities across southern Maine, including 20 owner communities. It processes about 175,000 tons of solid waste a year, generating enough steam to create upwards of 110,000 megawatt-hours of electricity, or enough to “power our waste-to-energy and recycling facilities, our company’s electric car, plus about 15,000 homes for a year,” he said.
One of GAIA’s concerns that came out of the report, Arkin said, is the fact that 79 percent of the incinerators in the country, including ecomaine, are in low-income communities and communities of color.
This, according to the report, “represents an affront to environmental justice as they contribute to the cumulative and disproportionate pollution placed on communities of color and low-income communities.”
“Regulators don’t take into account the cumulative pollution when they are setting emission levels,” she said.
The 87-page report also received funding from the JPB Foundation and The Overbrook Foundation.
JPB Foundation supports advancing “opportunity in the United States through transformational initiatives that empower those living in poverty, enrich and sustain our environment, and enable pioneering medical research.” The Overbook Foundation “supports organizations advancing human rights and conserving the natural environment.”
Grondin said a waste-to-energy facility is a better approach than landfills, which release methane, a significant greenhouse gas.
“We want to reduce, reuse, and recycle, first and foremost,” he said. “But the hard truth is that not all waste can be reduced, reused, recycled, or composted, as much as we all wish it was.
“In those cases, the alternatives are waste-to-energy or raw trash landfills. Given the significant benefits offered by waste-to-energy, the choice is clear to ecomaine and our 73 member communities that waste-to-energy is a far more sustainable – and safe – waste management strategy.”
Waste-to-energy facilities, he noted, reduce “trash volume by 90% and render it to an inert substance (ash), is substantial, and, in fact, it is the preferred method of disposal of non-recoverable material in Europe, as it has been for generations.”
Arkin disagreed and said she hopes the study will shift people’s thinking.
“Communities have a choice to make: keep pouring more and more money into these aging and failing facilities or go into a completely new direction that breaks the cycle and pursue waste reductions that get to the heart of to problem,” she said.
Those solutions include building zer0-waste infrastructure, adopting better environmental policies or working with businesses to change their practices so their waste stream is reduced, Arkin said.
Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mkelleynews