The ubiquitous green-and-white signs dot the front yards of Merriam Park, across the freeway from the Rock-Tenn recycling plant. They signal heated neighborhood opposition to proposals for incineration to generate steam for Rock-Tenn’s paper recycling operations, which lost its former source of steam when Xcel’s coal-burning High Bridge plant shut down as a cleaner-air measure.
The St. Paul Port Authority is scheduled to make its recommendation for a new source of steam heat for the plant by the end of July. Then the Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel (RCAP), which has been meeting, researching, studying and discussing for almost a year, will review and make its recommendation on the Port Authority proposal. The final decision is up to Rock-Tenn, of course, but availability of public financing, in various forms, will be a major factor.
Coming up with a new source of steam for Rock-Tenn is a complicated proposition. Initial proposals focused on fuel made from garbage, called refuse-derived fuel or RDF, which sparked neighborhood opposition. RCAP has studied a wide variety of fuel sources, costs, environmental impacts and public health concerns.
Many different interests compete over the plant’s future. Workers at the plant are concerned about keeping their jobs. The company wants to minimize energy costs. Neighbors want to minimize emissions. The St. Paul Port Authority is concerned about economic development. Many stakeholders worry about carbon emissions, energy efficiency and global warming.
Neighbors Against the Burner (NAB) get heated when they talk about health issues and incineration. The tagline at the top of their home page says, “Burning garbage in any form is not good for your health.” And they are not just opposed to burning garbage: they oppose all incineration.
Just because a garbage burner – or any kind of biomass or coal burner – meets the current EPA guidelines for emissions does NOT mean that those emissions are safe to humans or to the environment at large. … We cannot trust the EPA to protect our health. Also, what has long been overlooked in the business-as-usual approach to the regulation of emissions is the cumulative effect of various environmental toxins upon public health.
Because such harmful effects are cumulative, they may take years or decades to finally overpower our immune systems. Independent scientists (researchers who have not been paid by those in the incinerator and garbage-processing industries, who stand to profit by “proving” that burners are safe) studying the effects of burner emissions are discovering alarming relationships between the incidences of serious diseases – cancers, reproductive system disorders, immune system disorders, heart and lung disease, asthma and other breathing disorders (especially the increases in childhood asthma), ADHD and other brain-function disorders in children, and fetal health disorders – and patients’ proximity to burners.
Analyzing Health and Emissions
Health issues come in several sizes and shapes. Emissions of certain chemical toxins can increase cancer risk. Other chemical emissions may cause or contribute to a whole range of health problems, from immune system to heart to neurological and fetal health.
Barr Engineering, paid by the St. Paul Port Authority to analyze health concerns, has compiled extensive data comparing potential chemical emissions from various kinds of fuel (see May 30 documents.) The analysis considered natural gas, fuel oil, wood residues, agricultural residues, RDF, and coal.
“Any project that’s installed at Rock-Tenn will have lower emissions than what we have now [at Rock Tenn], or that were emitted at High Bridge to produce Rock-Tenn’s steam,” says Barr air quality engineer Richard Hardegger.
In addition to emissions of specific chemicals, particulate emissions of various sizes can create health problems. Particles that are one-millionth of a meter in size are called PM10. PM2.5 particle are one-fourth that size. Particles smaller than PM2.5, such as PM1 or PM.5, are called fine particulate emissions. Nano-particles are measured in one-billionths of a meter.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) monitors emissions of PM10 and PM2.5. They do not monitor fine particulate emissions (smaller than PM2.5) or nano-particulate emissionrs.
“Finer particles are more dangerous than larger particles,” according to Dr. Gurumurthy Ramachandran of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “If you are comparing PM10 and PM 2.5, yes, PM2.5 is more related to cardiovascular and respiratory health effects than PM10. If you go down to PM1 and PM.5, it is most likely that you will see a stronger relationship between these particles and health effects. While some nanoparticles (particles less than 0.1 micrometers) are more toxic than larger particles, they tend to agglomerate almost immediately into larger particles and thus are unlikely to be present in health-relevant concentrations in the communities.”
Dr. Ramachandran says that MPCA monitoring shows average levels of PM2.5 in the Twin Cities varying from 5 to 40 or 50 micrograms per cubic meter.
Dr. Ramachandran says that MPCA monitoring shows a lot of variability in PM2.5 in the Twin Cities, with average levels varying from 5 to 40 or 50 micrograms per cubic meter. “The calculations that were done with MPCA data and Barr Engineering tell us that any new facility that is put there will be an improvement in terms of emissions of fine particles over the existing facility,” Dr. Ramachandran says. “Any of the six different scenarios are better than the current situation.”
The bottom line
Like other public health figures, Dr. Ramachandran would oppose burning RDF. “RDF is essentially uncontrolled burning,” he says. “There’s no control over what goes into the burning. You could be burning heavy metals. High temperature combustion can lead to the production of dioxins and a whole slew of other toxics that could be released. I would be against RDF being considered as an option.”
Dr. Ian Greaves, also of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, agrees, calling RDF “an extremely unattractive fuel in an urban area.” Greaves says there is a higher probability of releasing metals when RDF is burned, though toxic metals also are present in treated woods, and it would be “unwise” to burn any treated wood in an incinerator.
Some cause-effect relationships between emissions and health effects are well-documented. Others are documented only in animal studies, or are under study, or are guessed at, but not yet proven. Cancer may take 10 or 20 years to develop. Birth defects may have multiple causes. Some people are more vulnerable to contaminants than others. Some contaminants build up in the body over time. Some contaminants interact with others in ways that have not yet been identified. People move, so studies of public health around incinerators do not find all of the exposed population.
“Time and again,” says Dr. Greaves, “we’ve noticed that when we don’t exert sufficient precaution in the case of uncertainty. We’ve learned later that the uncertainty translated into an adverse health effect.” His advice: “Reduce exposures when there’s uncertainty about the outcome.”
Mary Turck edits the Twin Cities Daily Planet.