Hundreds Ignored by DEP, EPA in Call to Close the Harrisburg Incinerator

The trash incinerator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is the nation's largest dioxin-emitting incinerator and possibly the largest single source of dioxin in the United States (according to the U.S. EPA).

Hundreds of people and groups below have signed onto letters asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to close the Harrisburg incinerator by their December 19th, 2000 deadline (which they did) and to keep it closed. Under legal threats from the City of Harrisburg, the U.S. EPA and PA DEP allowed the incinerator to restart on January 13th, 2001, using a loophole in the law, which allows "large" incinerators to shrink their permitted daily volume in order to fall into the "small" incinerator category. "Small" incinerators (those taking under 500 tons per day) don't have to comply with the new dioxin emissions standards for another 5 years.

The Coalition continues to organize for the permanent closure of this dioxin-spewing (and money-eating) machine.

The following is the sign-on letter which people sent to DEP and EPA between Dec 12th and Dec 20th, 2000:

Close the Harrisburg Incinerator!

Dear EPA Regional Administrator Bradley Campbell and DEP Secretary James Seif:

As a matter of public health, I am writing to ask that you enforce the intent of the law and shut down the Harrisburg incinerator by the December 19th, 2000 deadline.

The city's "derating" proposal to avoid the federal standards for as long as five more years is intolerable and must be denied.

EPA has identified this facility as perhaps the top source of dioxin emissions in the nation and a recent study shows the incinerator's emissions even contaminate the Canadian Arctic. The Harrisburg incinerator is one of the largest trash incinerators to operate without effective pollution controls to reduce toxic emissions to the air. It is by far the dirtiest municipal waste combustor in the Commonwealth, if not the nation.

The emissions from this incinerator also include acid gasses, heavy metals and particulate matter. These pollutants pose very significant health risks to Pennsylvanians.

The Harrisburg incinerator has a long history of environmental violations. The city has known since at least the early 1990s that major air pollution control technology upgrades were called for in upcoming federal regulations. The state's plan for municipal waste combustors includes these federal regulations. Now, the time has come, and the law requires the incinerator to significantly reduce air pollution by December 19. Yet the city has no intention of doing so. In order to protect public health, we urge you to enforce this deadline and shut the incinerator down if it fails to comply with the law.

Pollution levels at the incinerator are many times the standard that will apply as of December 19. A recent stack test showed dioxin levels 20 times the allowable amount. It is simply outrageous for the people of central Pennsylvania to be exposed to such toxins.

Public housing and other low income residential neighborhoods are in close proximity to this incinerator. Many of the residents are people of color. A determination allowing continued operation of this one facility without the significant emissions reductions of the federal regulation unfairly jeopardizes the health of these residents. It is a clear environmental justice matter.

In addition, keeping the incinerator open is not necessarily wise for the city's finances. After nearly 30 years of operation, the incinerator is still indebted by some $50 million. On balance, it has not been self-supporting. Through October, the incinerator had already lost $745,000 in 2000. It is a bad investment for Harrisburg taxpayers which only gets worse looking forward. A $50-60 million retrofit would be the next bill the taxpayer will be footing. The incinerator already charges higher tipping fees than area landfills. A doubling of its debt would force much higher tipping fees still, and the ability of the incinerator to maintain and attract customers would be seriously jeopardized.

The City is not without options. It has just built a new trash transfer station which is capable of serving the City's needs. According to Mayor Stephen Reed and the Dauphin County Solid Waste Plan, three area landfills would receive Harrisburg trash if a shutdown is ordered. It is in the City's best interest in the long run for this incinerator to close now before more people are exposed to high dioxin emissions and before massive new debt is accrued. Waste reduction and improved recycling will be additional environmental benefits of a shutdown.

It is critical for public health that the EPA and DEP enforce the terms of the regulation, the state plan, and the facility's permit.

The following is the sign-on letter which people sent to DEP and EPA between Dec 20th, 2000 and January 18th, 2001:

...and Keep it Closed!

Dear EPA Regional Administrator Bradley Campbell and DEP Secretary James Seif:

I am encouraged to see that the Harrisburg Incinerator is currently shut down as called for in EPA's November letter to Pennsylvania DEP Secretary James Seif and in the facility's permit. However, the City's efforts to bring the facility back on-line prior to a comprehensive, deliberative process to determine its right to do so must be rejected.

The Harrisburg Incinerator is a matter of serious public health concern both for the communities surrounding it and for people living great distances away downwind from the facility. The dioxins, heavy metals, acid gasses, particulates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides emitted by the incinerator are all pollutants which can have grave impacts on human health.

In light of the very poor environmental track record at this facility, and a possible five years without pollution control improvements, it is even more vital than usual that the decision-making process to allow continued dangerous air pollution include meaningful public participation.

The self-imposed, short-term financial implications of this closure upon the City government must not be allowed to take precedence over the greater public health need for relief from this obsolete, high-emitting incinerator.

I strongly urge you to demonstrate real commitment to public participation by providing for an adequate public comment period with a public hearing before a possible approval for de-rating the facility is communicated in any way.

Last modified: 23 February 2002

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