The western part of Mecklenburg County and the eastern part of Gaston County have some of the worst air quality in the the state and in the country. For decades residents in Gaston and Mecklenburg have been subjected to air pollution that impacts our air, water and land quality and our health from sources such as the incineration of coal at the Riverbend coal-fired plant power plant.
Now we are hearing that ReVenture Park wants to continue their plans to build another incinerator to surround the communities, businesses, homes, schools, churches, etc. with toxic air emissions from a biomass incinerator. So I guess it’s time for an update on this issue and the hazards of burning biomass, wood, coal, garbage, natural gas, toxic materials, and more. We’ll share information from experts and the experiences of other communities. We plan to continue this series for as long as ReVenture Park continues their plan to build an incinerator. It may be a long or short series. We hope that it will be a short one.
Here’s a key fact:
INCINERATORS make waste more toxic and …
Do not eliminate waste, but change the form of waste into hazardous air emissions and toxic ash.
Convert 30% of the waste burned into toxic ash, which EPA allows to be used as daily landfill cover.
Spread hazardous contamination worldwide; contaminating air, soil, and water.
Are a major source of 210 different dioxin compounds, plus mercury, cadmium, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, fluorides, and particulate matter small enough to lodge permanently in the lungs.
So what comes out of the smokestack?
Thanks to the Partnership for Policy Integrity for this excellent technical backgrounder on some of the toxins produced by biomass incineration.
Information on air pollutants
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is the indicator species for the NOx group of gases, which includes nitrous acid and nitric acid. It primarily forms when fuels are burned at high temperatures. These acidic gases directly impact respiratory health, and also contribute to formation of ozone and condensable particulate matter. Nationwide, the majority of NO2 is from the transportation sector, but utilities and other sources of combustion account for about 34% of total emissions.
As of January 2010, EPA set a new 1-hour standard for NO2 of 100 ppb in ambient air, and retained the annual average pollution standard of 53 ppb.
A principle component of smog, ground level ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide (CO), and methane react, energized by UV light. The main sources of NOx and VOCs are industrial facilities, electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents. As a highly reactive oxidant gas, ozone aggravates the airways, causing respiratory distress and exacerbating asthma. It also damages vegetation and is increasingly recognized as a threat to forest health.
EPA has proposed revising its eight-hour standard for ozone from 0.075 ppm to 0.06 – 0.07 ppm, acknowledging that the ozone standards set in 2008 were not as protective as recommended by EPA’s panel of science advisors, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). EPA has also proposed a new “seasonal secondary standard” for ozone exposure that represents cumulative exposure during peak ozone season.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) exposure causes breathing difficulty for people with asthma, and is also implicated in regional haze and acid rain formation. A recent EPA risk assessment for SO2 concludes that definite health risks to asthmatics occur at concentrations significantly lower than the current 24-hour health standard for SO2. The document further notes that “over 20 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and therefore, exposure to SO2 likely represents a significant health issue.” The main sources of SO2 are fossil fuel combustion at power plants and industrial facilities. Along with its direct effects, SO2 also contributes to the formation of fine particulate matter. EPA concluded that a new SO2 standard with a 1-hour averaging time would be more protective. As of June 2, 2010, EPA strengthened the NAAQS for SO2 by adding a 1-hour standard set at 75 ppb.
Fine particle emissions arise from both direct ash emissions from combustion at energy plants, but also form from emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds. Particulate air pollution has long been known to be associated with increased cardiopulmonary symptoms, asthma attacks, days lost from work due to respiratory disease, emergency room visits, hospitalization rates, and mortality. Two size classes are recognized in regulatory schemes: PM10 and PM2.5, with the numeric value referring to the particle size in microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter). There is no current health standard for PM10; EPA’s 24-hour and annual exposure standards for PM2.5 are 35 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) and 15 µg/m3. EPA’s most recent risk assessment for PM acknowledges that the current standards are insufficiently protective and indicates that the agency will be lowering the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM2.5 once more.
The classes of particulate matter classed as “black carbon” are implicated in a recent study as having up to 60% of the climate warming effect of CO2, by both creating “brown clouds” and darkening and thus increasing the heat absorption of snow and ice in polar regions. Controlling soot emissions and thus lessening albedo effects may thus be an even faster way to mitigate sea ice melting than controlling greenhouse gas emissions. A recent UN report found that controlling black carbon emissions and ozone could dramatically reduce global warming and improve human health.
Lead exposure primarily occurs from paint that has not been remediated. Lead exposure in children is linked to a variety of developmental and neurological problems. A recent study concluded that
“long-term trends in population exposure to gasoline lead were found to be remarkably consistent with subsequent changes in violent crime and unwed pregnancy. Long-term trends in paint and gasoline lead exposure are also strongly associated with subsequent trends in murder rates going back to 1900. The findings on violent crime and unwed pregnancy are consistent with published data describing the relationship between IQ and social behavior. The findings with respect to violent crime are also consistent with studies indicating that children with higher bone lead tend to display more aggressive and delinquent behavior. This analysis demonstrates that widespread exposure to lead is likely to have profound implications for a wide array of socially undesirable outcomes.”
EPA recently dropped the NAAQS for lead from 1.5 µg/m3 to 0.15 µg/m3.
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Carbon monoxide is a product of incomplete combustion that when inhaled, interferes with oxygen absorption in the blood. Emissions of CO from biomass boilers generally increase with fuel moisture; “good combustion practices” are frequently cited as the best control for CO emissions. Carbon monoxide can accumulate in closed spaces and could be a problem in the vicinity of improperly ventilated combustion sources. Carbon monoxide is treated under EPA’s “boiler rule” as a proxy for certain organic toxics that are assumed to increase as CO emissions increase.
Hazardous air pollutants
Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) is the group name for 187 compounds which are known to have highly harmful health or environmental effects. The list includes metals like chromium, lead, and mercury, as well as compounds like dioxins (products of combustion that are widely considered to be among the most toxic chemicals known), benzene (a constituent of gasoline) and formaldehyde. EPA has classified two HAPs as human carcinogens (arsenic and the hexavalent form of chromium, CrVI) and four as probable human carcinogens (cadmium, lead, dioxins/furans, and nickel). All of these HAPs, as well as others, can be emitted in significant amounts by biomass energy facilities that burn “urban wood” as fuel, which contains lead-painted wood, wood treated with copper chromium arsenate, and non-wood materials that exacerbate dioxin/furan formation. Monitoring for these pollutants is rare, but emission levels can be high in the vicinity of specific emitters.
Considered a human carcinogen by EPA, arsenic is highly toxic, and is a principle component of copper-chromium-arsenate (CCA) mixture that was used for pressure-treating lumber. Facilities that proposed to burn waste wood generally rely on visual sorting techniques to remove arsenic-containing pressure-treated wood from the CDD that it burns. However, such detection can be difficult, as noted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection website, which states
“You can usually recognize pressure treated wood by its greenish tint, especially on the cut end, and staple-sized slits that line the wood. However, the greenish tint fades with time, and not all pressure treated wood has the slits”.
Chromium is also a constituent of pressure-treated wood, and is toxic, particularly in the hexavalent form (CR VI). EPA’s website states: “The respiratory tract is the major target organ for chromium (VI) toxicity, for acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inhalation exposures. Shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing were reported from a case of acute exposure to chromium (VI), while perforations and ulcerations of the septum, bronchitis, decreased pulmonary function, pneumonia, and other respiratory effects have been noted from chronic exposure. Human studies have clearly established that inhaled chromium (VI) is a human carcinogen, resulting in an increased risk of lung cancer. Animal studies have shown hexavalent chromium to cause lung tumors via inhalation exposure.” EPA’s conversion constant for the proportion of total chromium from biomass burning that is emitted in the hexavalent form is 56%.
Mercury is a significant and dangerous contaminant that damages neurological development and other organ functions. It accumulates up food chains, presenting the greatest threat to humans and fish-eating birds like loons. Mercury is transported in the atmosphere but a significant amount from a point source can be deposited nearby, contaminating soils and water bodies. Biomass burning can emit surprisingly high amounts of mercury; for instance, the 21.5 MW Hu Honua facility planned in Hawaii would emit about 10 lb of mercury per year. This emissions rate is about 0.053 lb/kWh, more than 21 times the 0.0025 lb/kWh emissions rate at the Mount Tom coal plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. To be sure, the rate at the coal plant is this low because the facility has installed expensive emissions control equipment – equipment that biomass developers refuse to install because it is not “cost effective”.
Dioxins/furans are “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic” (PBT) compounds that are created as by-products of chemical manufacturing, and also from combustion. Dioxin/furans are known to affect hormone levels and functions, as well as affecting fetal development, the immune system, and reproduction. They are toxic at levels that already exist in the environment. EPA states: “Because dioxins are widely distributed throughout the environment in low concentrations, are persistent and bioaccumulated, most people have detectable levels of dioxins in their tissues. These levels, in the low parts per trillion, have accumulated over a lifetime and will persist for years, even if no additional exposure were to occur. This background exposure is likely to result in an increased risk of cancer and is uncomfortably close to levels that can cause subtle adverse non-cancer effects in animals and humans.”