Citizens Tell DEP to Close Down the Incinerator

No one spoke in support of the Harrisburg incinerator during the public hearing held September 25 by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). More than a dozen people took the microphone and expressed their concerns and opposition to permitting the facility to continue to operate. Some were engineers and environmental experts, who addressed the technical deficiencies of the facility and others were citizens who were worried about the health and financial exposure that the incinerator represents.

However, not one City Council member, who will make the final decision on funding the improvements for the incinerator, was present to hear the case made against the incinerator.

Carol Lupkie, who lives near the incinerator on Allison Street, told DEP that it had been "dreadful" living near the facility for 67 years. She and about 50 of her neighbors went to City Council many times over the noise and fallout of particles from the incinerator. "Large slivers of a black substance" used to cover their neighborhood, she recalled. "We never knew what it was," she said. Lupkie said she was "heartened" that so many people came out to express their opposition to the incinerator.

DEP is considering an application to permit the Harrisburg incinerator to operate under the terms of a consent agreement between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the city of Harrisburg. Under the agreement, the facility can continue operating at a reduced capacity until June 18, 2003, when it must either comply with clean air standards or close down.

The Green Party candidate for mayor, Diane White, said that the incinerator has exposed the citizens to high dioxin emissions and massive debt and should be closed down. "It should be our choice, not something forced on us by Stephen Reed," she said.

"This incinerator is a $55 million monkey on the back of Harrisburg Taxpayers and it is a potential health threat to all Pennsylvanians," White said.

Paula Harris, representing the Greater Harrisburg Area NAACP, noted that the branch has asked DEP to conduct health studies before granting the permit. Until that is done, the local NAACP opposes this permit, she said.

Mike Ewall explained that the Harrisburg incinerator is the last plant that has been permitted to operate with antiquated pollution controls. Because dioxin is created during the cooling process, Ewall said the temperature limit set by the agreement needs to be lowered below 400 degrees to reduce the amount of dioxin created.

Kevin Stewart of the American Lung Association said that all people are entitled to clean air. His organization is especially troubled by the fine particles that are emitted from the incinerator. The smaller particles can get into the farthest reaches of the body's respiratory system, out of range of the body's natural cleaning systems. When fine particle emissions go up, deaths go up, he said. Stewart said the dioxin limit for the Harrisburg incinerator is "ridiculously lax," noting that other incinerators have to meet dioxin standards 30 times below this one. When you are talking about dioxin, Stewart said "there is no margin of safety." Stewart said he cannot understand why the EPA would accommodate this plant instead of protecting public health. He called upon the DEP to identify and measure the substances being released by the incinerator, such as cadmium, lead and mercury, and then translate those findings into information the public can understand and use.

Dave Graybill, a city resident representing the people in his neighborhood, urged DEP to shut down the incinerator. He called upon the city to institute an aggressive waste reduction plan. He and his neighbors have concluded that the administration does not want to close the plant because of the debt. Graybill said that since the effect on human health goes far beyond the borders of the city, the state should be willing to provide some assistance to deal with the debt in order to protect the public's health. If state can fund the Civil War Museum, the Arts Center, and the Sports Hall of Fame, it certainly should be willing to assist the city with this.

Vickie Smedley of the PA Environmental Network likened the health effects from the continued operation of the incinerator to a form of terrorism. It is emitting unacceptably high levels of dioxin, which creates developmental, reproductive and endocrinology problems in people. Further, it is a known carcinogen. Dioxin is stored in the body's fat so that exposure to even minute amounts over time is a health hazard. Smedley said that the people living near the incinerator are like frogs put in a pot of water. If the heat is slowly turned up, the frogs will not notice they are being boiled alive until it is too late. "If we allow DEP to permit this abomination, we will be the frogs," Smedley said.

Michael Fiorentino of the Clean Air Council presented letters from 50 area residents expressing their opposition to the incinerator. Fiorentino pointed out that the procedure being used to keep this facility alive is flawed. For instance, the public hearing should have been held before the changes to the incinerator were made, not after. Permitting the incinerator to reduce its capacity, or derate, goes against the goals of the Clean Air Act. Further, in order to derate, permanent physical changes have to be made to the plant. He argued that the installation of fans and computer equipment hardly meets the standards of "permanent." There is also evidence that the modifications have affected the incinerator's efficiency. An inspection of the ash reveals that after the trash was burned, one can still discern the color of paper burned. Fiorentino revealed that DEP expanded the latest emission test by several days to exclude an event at the incinerator, which lowered the temperature at the plant. The test took place between September 5 and 10th. Fiorentino urged DEP "to stop this experiment right now" and end the community's exposure to the mercury, lead and dioxin that the incinerator is producing.

Mark Miller, a professional engineer who lives in the city, said that regulators should be taking the side of the citizens. After reviewing the application, Miller cautioned DEP to review the airflow and steam rates, which do not reflect the changes from the modifications made. Further, Miller said the dioxin levels permitted in the permit are very high. Dioxin is a strong promoter of cancer with a half-life of 7.1 years. At the agreement's permitted rate, the community is annually exposed to dioxin that is equivalent of 70 years of what is considered safe exposure. Based on the incinerator's record, DEP already has the authority to deny the permit. Under the law, DEP can deny a permit if the facility has violations on its record or demonstrates an inability to comply with the regulations.

Jan Jarrett of Penn Future called the Harrisburg incinerator the "dirtiest incinerator in Pennsylvania" and is a "chronic violator." The incinerator regularly violates its air and waste permits, which demonstrates an inability to comply. "There are abundant reasons to deny this permit," she said. During the shutdown of the incinerator, the city demonstrated it found something to do with its trash.

Frank Divonzo, representing the grass-roots Coalition Against the Incinerator, said the incinerator has a "miserable compliance record" which should make everyone wonder why DEP has allowed it to operate. Did the city threaten to sue? Did it threaten to lay off workers? Did it scare taxpayers with the cost? In all the times the city has borrowed money to make the necessary improvements to the incinerator, it still has problems. Divonzo asked who created the problem with the incinerator? It wasn't DEP or EPA, or the employees or the citizens.

Charles Chivis expressed disgust for an administration that would allow "an out-of-date, out-of-compliance incinerator to" pollute its citizens. In part, Chivis blamed the media for never telling the truth about the incinerator to the public. Only recently has the daily newspaper questioned the plans to modernize the incinerator. "We come here tonight hoping that another backroom deal hasn't been worked out to allow this polluter to continue to spew its poison over Steelton, Swatara, and the Harrisburg area." He concluded his remarks by asking God to take care of those who would permit this.

City resident Wendi Taylor said the city has never really dealt with the problems of the incinerator. "Even though the city knew for years in advance that the Harrisburg incinerator needed to comply with stricter clean air standards, the city waited until the last minute to address the problem," she said. And when they did address the problem, "they did not come up with a real solution, they came up with a political solution." The city negotiated an agreement to keep the incinerator open by agreeing to burn less trash but not to stop polluting. She urged DEP to close down the incinerator and stop polluting the hemisphere.