Senate bill addresses problem of poorly regulated medical waste incineration in Oregon

March 17, 2023 5:30 am
syringe used for shot

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers cannot charge patients for recommended immunizations and some other preventive care like mammograms. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Did you know Oregon is home to the only place in the western half of the United States that still imports and burns medical waste?  

That place is in Marion County, home of Covanta’s trash incinerator, the only plant burning trash or medical waste in the state.  It burns around 14,000 tons of medical waste each year, mostly from out-of-state, turning it into dangerous air pollution and toxic ash that is then buried in Oregon’s landfills.

In 1988, there were over 6,200 medical waste incinerators in the U.S.  Today, about 30 remain.  Hospitals did not fail for lack of waste handling. The industry moved to clean, non-burn alternatives, primarily autoclaving which steam sterilizes biological hazards without creating more dangerous chemical hazards by burning.

Why is Covanta burning medical waste in a trash incinerator?  Greed.  Covanta rakes in about $500 more per ton for medical waste than it does for trash.  Covanta Marion is among the nation’s smallest and oldest incinerators, so it’s not very profitable unless it burns lucrative (but more dangerous) waste streams like medical waste and liquid industrial wastes.

The problem is that Covanta isn’t playing fair.  It is exploiting a federal loophole that allows it to follow far weaker emissions standards than if it were regulated as a large new medical waste incinerator.  With the amount of medical waste Covanta burns, it’s more than six times over the limit of what qualifies as a “large” medical waste incinerator.  

Standards for new medical waste incinerators are far stricter than the standards for how much pollution a trash incinerator can put into the air.  Because of this loophole for burning medical waste at a trash incinerator, Covanta gets away with spewing more cadmium, lead, mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid into the air than would be legal if it were regulated as a medical waste incinerator.

Covanta’s competitors in the eastern half of the country that burn only medical waste have to comply with this stricter standard.  While Covanta burns more medical waste than most of its competitors, its less-regulated cash cow gets to profit at the expense of public health for Oregonians.  It’s not fair.

Democratic state Sen. Deb Patterson of Salem has introduced Senate Bill 488 to address this problem of poorly regulated medical waste burning in Oregon. The bill would require that if an incinerator is burning enough medical waste to qualify as a medium- or large-scale medical waste incinerator, the more protective federal regulations for burning medical waste should apply.

Of course, Covanta will claim that the sky will fall if you make it play by the rules that others must follow.  Executives will say their plant will shut down.  They’ll say that Oregon hospitals will have nowhere to handle their waste – also untrue.

They’ve even claimed that all but a handful of states require medical waste to be incinerated.  In fact, not a single state has such a requirement to burn medical waste in general.  However, Oregon requires burning of pathological waste (body parts), which represents just about 1% of hospital waste. Even if Oregon keeps its requirement to burn pathological waste instead of allowing safer options (as nearly all states do), there’s no need to burn standard red-bag medical waste, or anything imported from other states.

Senate Bill 488 would make Covanta choose: Follow the stricter modern standards for new medical waste incinerators, or stick to burning just the in-state pathological waste that state law requires to be burned, which would be little enough that they won’t be subject to the stricter requirements.

Several state and local environmental and public health organizations are uncomfortable with Oregon hosting a trash incineration facility – and rightly so.  Covanta Marion, the state’s only remaining trash incinerator, is an old, technologically outdated facility that continues to burn upwards of 180,000 tons of waste each year.  Like all waste incinerators, Covanta Marion pollutes the soil, water and air with lead, mercury, dioxins, and dozens of other toxic chemicals, harming Oregonians with everything from cancer to learning disabilities.

The Legislature would be wise to enact Senate Bill 488.  It’s an important piece of health policy that would ensure the first edict of medical ethics: “first, do no harm.”

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Mike Ewall
Mike Ewall

Mike Ewall is the founder and director of the Pennsylvania-based Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots community groups fighting dirty energy and waste incineration facilities.