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Trash-Burning System for Capitol Raises Concerns

Gilman also emphasized that Covanta has always been quick to address the issues at hand and has not shied away from taking responsibility, when appropriate. He added that none of these instances put public health at risk.

Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council — a trade association for waste-to-energy operators — said Covanta’s history of violations was not unusual.

“To some extent, it’s the nature of the business: These are machines, after all, and they are not perfect, and they sometimes operate in a way you didn’t intend them to,” Michaels said. “I would think these violations would be applicable to any facility operating under a complicated Clean Air Act permit.”

One of Covanta’s main competitors, Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., has also been the subject to environmental scrutiny: In May, it was fined $7.5 million by the state of Massachusetts, “the highest ever for a state case arising out of environmental violations,” according to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell.

For some environmentalists, that indicates the bigger problems with waste-to-energy technology in general.

“Our research shows that per hour of energy they generate, waste-to-energy incinerators are dirtier than coal-fired power plants for a range of pollutants,” said Robbie Orvis, a research analyst with the Environmental Integrity Project, noting that Rhode Island and Massachusetts have banned construction of any new facilities.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have showed mixed reactions to news that Congress would burn its trash.

Last week, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the House Administration Committee, was adamant in her opposition.

“I don’t agree with it,” the California Democrat said. “Why the Republicans are choosing pollution at every step is beyond me.”

The proposal comes amid a broader fight in the House over environmental practices.

Early in the 112th Congress, Republicans scaled back programs associated with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) Green the Capitol Initiative, ending a composting program and replacing biodegradable dishware in House dining facilities with those made from Styrofoam.

But a number of other House Democrats who work on environmental issues said they were willing to give the program the benefit of the doubt. Still, they said their support will depend on the environmental history of the plants ultimately selected,

“I’m totally open to it, if it’s done right,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said last week.

On Wednesday, Welch spokesman Scott Corriell said that in light of revelations about Covanta’s record, the Congressman “would hope that the AOC looks into any concerns about this vendor.”

Eben Burnham-Snyder also said that his boss, Natural Resources ranking member Ed Markey (D-Mass.), was generally supportive of waste-to-energy.

He added, though, that this program should not be in the place of the sustainability initiatives that preceded it.

“Regardless of the quality of the waste-to-energy technology employed, it won’t compare to the better system implemented by Nancy Pelosi in the previous two sessions of Congress,” Burnham-Snyder said.

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