MACT Regulations Help Clean Up WTE

Higher-than-expected emissions reductions recorded.

Recent data released by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards suggests that emissions from larger municipal solid waste (MSW) incinerators have been seriously reduced because these facilities complied with Clean Air Act standards.

From 1990 to 2000, 66 waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerators cut their emissions in organic, metal and acid gas by more than 90 percent overall.

The 66 large-unit facilities spent about $1 billion to upgrade their pollution control technology, as required by federal Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) air standards promulgated in 1995.

The recent data shows that "the MACT equipment worked even better than we thought," says Katie Cullen of the Integrated Waste Services Association (IWSA), Washington, D.C. "We originally estimated that mercury emissions would be reduced by 92 percent, but they actually were reduced by 95 percent. The same is true for dioxins," she says.

Through a combustion process, MACT equipment destroys harmful organics and dioxins before they are formed, Cullen notes. The EPA data suggests that the MACT equipment also prevents the release of 11 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually.

According to IWSA, more than 37 million people in 31 states rely on 102 WTE facilities — or about 30 million in 24 states rely on the 66 tested facilities — to convert between 80,000 and 100,000 tons of garbage per day into enough power to meet the needs of 2 million to 2.5 million homes.

Specifically, EPA data shows that since 1990, dioxin/furan emissions from WTE facilities have decreased by more than 99 percent, lead emissions by 90.9 percent, mercury emissions by 95.1 percent, particulate matter emissions by 89.8 percent, hydrogen chloride emissions by 94.3 percent, cadmium emissions by 93 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions by 86.7 percent and nitrogen oxides emissions by 17.6 percent.

Mercury emissions nationwide represent less than 3 percent of the national inventory of man-made mercury emissions, and dioxin emissions from WTE facilities represent less than 1 percent of the nation's inventory of dioxin sources, according to the EPA.

The EPA report also states that WTE plants have a 33 percent recycling rate, compared with the 28 percent national average. And, U.S. WTE facilities recover nearly 800,000 tons of ferrous metals and more than 900,000 tons of glass, metal, plastics, batteries, ash and yard waste for recycling.

However, not everyone agrees with the data and use of WTE/incineration facilities. For instance, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), which is based in the Philippines but has offices in Washington, D.C., organized several protests worldwide immediately before the EPA data was released. The protests called for alternative ways to handle waste, specifically through zero waste and recycling programs.

"Any dioxin is too much dioxin, as far as we're concerned," says Monica Wilson, field director for the Multinationals Resource Center, which works with GAIA to provide research and support for communities on labor, corporate and environmental issues. "According to data by the United Nations Environment Program [UNEP], 69 percent of dioxins around the globe come from waste incinerators," she says.

Wilson contends that people should separate their recyclables instead of trying to produce energy from them. "There is a lot of energy put into materials to make them into a product ... the stuff that goes into the incinerators is coming from somewhere, and we have to look at where these discards are coming from," she says.

This summer, the EPA will release an official report that further analyzes the emissions data.

Pollutant 1990 Emissions 2000 Emissions Percent Reduction
CDD/CDF1, total mass basis 218,000 g/yr 679 g/yr 99+
CDD/CDF, TEQ basis2 4,260 g/yr 12.0 g/yr 99+
Mercury 45.2 tons/yr 2.20 tons/yr 95.1
Cadmium 4.75 tons/yr 0.333 tons/yr 93.0
Lead 51.2 tons/yr 4.76 tons/yr 90.9
Particulate Matter 6,930 tons/yr 707 tons/yr 89.8
Hydrogen Chloride (HCI) 46,900 tons/yr 2,672 tons/yr 94.3
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 30,700 tons/yr 4,076 tons/yr 86.7
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) 56,400 tons/yr 46,500 tons/yr 17.6
1) Chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins/chlorinated dibenzo-p-furans.
2) Dioxin/furan emissions in units of toxic equivalent quantity (TEQ), using 1989 NATO toxicity factors.
Source: EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards