Marion County plans to sign new three-year contract with garbage burner

The Marion County Board of Commissioners are considering a new contract with Covanta Marion, a trash incinerator in Brooks.(Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

The Marion County Board of Commissioners meets Wednesday to consider another contract with Covanta, the garbage incinerator, for another three years. 

The current contract expires on Thursday.

Covanta Marion, run by a New Jersey-based firm, burns Marion County’s garbage and imported medical waste, creating steam that generates electrical power that’s sold to Portland General Electric.

The new contract will see the county take a smaller role in the plant’s operations. If approved, the county will pay a set fee to dispose of garbage and won’t get money from the electricity generated at the facility. Under prior contracts, Marion County got a portion of the money from power generated at the plant, about $1.6 million last year, and had to pay to dispose of the ash, among other things.

Supporters say burning trash is better for the environment than using landfills. Opponents, however, say the air pollution, among other issues, does more harm than good.

Covanta ranks No. 22 on the list of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the state, according a 2019 report by the state Department of Environmental Quality. In 2019, it emitted 162,437 metric tons of greenhouse gases – largely carbon dioxide.

About half of Covanta Marion’s emissions are biogenic, meaning they come from materials like plants and trees. The other 80,835 tons of emissions are “anthropogenic” emissions, byproducts of burning man-made goods like plastic and other fossil-fueled based materials.

For years, the garbage burner sought renewable energy credits so it could sell the 13 megawatts of power it generates at a premium. At the time, Covanta officials said the plant would have to close or charge the county double for garbage rates if it didn’t get the credits.

In response to a question about whether the burner would have to shut down, James Regan, Covanta spokesman, told Salem Reporter the contract with the county is short-term.

“Two years ago, we were discussing long-term agreements for both energy sales and waste disposal. The short-term contract allows for the continued operation and evaluation of the facility while providing the vital, essential services of waste disposal both for Marion County and other customers,” he said in an email.

Efforts to get renewable credits failed. A bill in the 2020 legislative session that would establish renewable energy certificates for facilities that generate electricity from burning solid waste never made it out of committee.

The plant doesn’t appear to be close to shuttering. A provision in the contract could allow the terms to be extended twice for up to a decade, until June 30, 2034.

The contract terms call for the county to deliver at least 125,000 tons of solid waste each year. The county pays Covanta Marion $37.50 per ton, at a total cost of $4.68 million. For every ton delivered above that amount, the county pays an additional $37.50.

Last year Marion County paid $11.1 million to get rid of its trash, according to county spokeswoman Jolene Kelley.

It also calls for Covanta to limit the amount of medical waste it accepts to 18,000 tons each year.

The Brooks facility has been burning paint, toner and other waste containing plastics from as far away as Canada, the Statesman Journal reported.

Under the contract, Covanta will pay Marion County $5 per ton for all waste brought from outside the county.

Last year, the county received $3.4 million from Covanta for that type of garbage, Kelley said.

Damon Motz-Storey, healthy climate program director at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the state just passed legislation that requires electricity providers, like PGE, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their utility grids to 80% below baseline emission levels by 2030 and completely by 2040.

The Portland-based group has long been in efforts objecting the burner.

“That says to me that (Marion County) need to really seriously consider impacts of that legislation before they move forward with anything,” they said.

Motz-Storey said they could see Covanta struggling to find a buyer for its electricity. Creating energy by burning garbage is costly and inefficient, they said.

Regan refuted that claim.

He said waste-to-energy facilities “like the one in Marion County are widely recognized as the most sustainable way to manage waste after recycling and are important greenhouse gas mitigation tools.”

Motz-Storey pointed out that the incinerator, which opened in Brooks in 1987, is located in one of the few majority Latino communities in the state.

“There are a lot of outdoor farmworkers struggling with extreme heat, smoke in the air. They’re also breathing this background of pollution from the incinerator,” they said.

Motz-Storey said the county needs to look into a responsible transition plan and allow the community to weigh in on how it disposes of its garbage, which can impact garbage rates.

“They deserve to have a little more input in this,” they said.

In response to a list of questions from Salem Reporter, Kelley said there are many opportunities for residents to weigh in on county services.

She said they can do so at the beginning of commissioner’s weekly board meetings or through the Solid Waste Management Advisory Council which meets monthly.

“Additionally, in December 2019 Marion County conducted a survey of county residents and included a question on whether residents preferred waste-to-energy versus landfilling garbage. Eight in ten residents indicated a preference for waste-to-energy,” Kelley wrote.

The cost of throwing away garbage in Salem has steadily increased in recent years. On the Marion County side of the city, the cost of a 35-gallon solid waste cart jumped from $29.50 per month in 2019 to $32.05 per month this year.

On the Polk County side of the city, the cost went from $23.85 in 2019 to $26.30 each month for a 35-gallon cart.

The Salem City Council voted to set those rates in 2019 and it’s unclear how the new contract will impact future rates.

By comparison, in 2019 Eugene residents paid $24.65 per month for a 35-gallon cart, Medford residents paid $20.30 and Corvallis $24.30.

And Marion County residents are still sending trash to the landfill. During a Salem City Club presentation last year Brian Nicholas, with Marion County Public Works, said only 60% of the county’s garbage goes to the burner. Most of the rest, 103,000 tons of garbage, goes to the Coffin Butte landfill in Corvallis, he told members.

The ash from the incinerator is also trucked to either Coffin Butte Landfill or the North Marion Monofill.

Meeting details: The commissioners meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Senator Hearing Room at 555 Court Street N.E. The meeting is streamed live on YouTube

Correction: This article previously attributed a quote to Brian Nicholas. The quote was from spokeswoman Jolene Kelley. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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