Trash burning is “poisoning communities” in Florida, the complaint says

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According to a federal complaint filed by an environmental organization, state officials are endangering the health of vulnerable residents and violating their civil rights by allowing them to be exposed to harmful emissions from 10 incinerators across Florida.

Four of the plants are located in the Tampa Bay area: two in Hillsborough County, one in Pinellas and one in Pasco. Census data shows the factories are located in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods across the state. The two Hillsborough properties are located in majority-minority areas, while the Pasco and Pinellas properties are not.

Waste-to-energy plants burn food, textiles and other household waste to generate electricity. About 20 percent of Florida municipal solid waste is incinerated for energy, according to a Industry Report 2018.

It is a renewable energy source that reduces carbon emissions from fossil fuels and curbs methane generation from landfills. according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But critics say the state is ignoring the toll the technology is taking on the environment and the physical health of surrounding communities.

“It’s the dirtiest form of energy there is, and it’s poisoning communities,” said Dominique Burkhardt, an attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, the environmental rights organization that filed the complaint. “The term ‘green energy plant’ is an absolute lie.”

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Burning trash “releases pollutants known to cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive health risks, an increased risk of death and other health effects,” according to the statement the complaint was filed with federal environmental officials on Thursday. The complaint calls it “one of the most emission-intensive forms of electricity generation, exacerbating the climate crisis while poisoning communities.”

Combustion plants can emit 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants, according to a Earthjustice Report 2021. They emit up to 18 times more lead and 14 times more mercury, along with increased levels of other harmful emissions, it said.

A grab crane is used to manipulate piles of mixed and non-recyclable waste at a collection pit at the Pasco County Solid Waste Resource Recovery Facility in Shady Hills. It is one of 10 such facilities statewide that is part of a federal civil rights complaint filed by an environmental group accusing state officials of exposing vulnerable residents to harmful emissions. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not consider environmental justice or demographic factors when deciding where to build the facilities, the complaint said. As a result, many waste-to-energy plants are located in majority-minority neighborhoods.

A Hillsborough County spokesman said officials needed to review the complaint before commenting. Neither the state nor Tampa Bay’s other three municipalities — Pasco County, Pinellas County, and the City of Tampa — that operate the other facilities, responded to a request for comment. The facilities are:

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  • Pasco County Resource Recovery Facility, 14230 Hays Road, Shady Hills.
  • Hillsborough County Resource Recovery Facility at 350 N Falkenburg Road in Tampa.
  • McKay Bay Waste Incinerator, 114 S 34th St. in Tampa.
  • Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility, 3001 110th Ave. N in St Petersburg.

Census data shows that seven of the state’s 10 facilities are in neighborhoods with a higher-than-average proportion of non-white residents and five with a higher-than-average proportion of non-English-speaking residents.

This is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which the complaint “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program” receiving federal funding.

Federal authorities say black and Hispanic residents are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure — all of which make them vulnerable to the side effects of pollution.

Eight facilities are located in areas with a high percentage of elderly residents or young children, who are particularly vulnerable to smoke and chemicals released from trash burning — another violation of federal protections against age discrimination, the complaint says.

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The complaint centers on an incinerator in the town of Doral, a predominantly Hispanic community 15 miles west of Miami. Earthjustice provided records showing that since January 2016, nearly 3,000 calls have been made to a hotline complaining of foul odors at the facility. Many refer by name to the Miami-Dade County Resources Recovery Facility operated by Covanta Energy.

“Covanta is proud to be a good neighbor to communities across the country,” the company said in a statement. “The county-owned facility has been in Doral for decades, and one of South Florida’s most exclusive communities has grown around it.” The company directed additional questions to the Florida counties that operate the facilities.

When the plant’s operating license had to be renewed earlier this year, Burkhardt said it was the municipality’s chance to have its complaints heard by state regulators. But state officials have already made up their minds, she said.

State officials said they will review the complaint and ensure the community’s concerns about the Doral facility are heard while they consider whether to renew their permit. “DEP will not grant any permit that does not protect Florida’s environment and does not meet all of the requirements of Florida law,” the department said in a statement.

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But Burkhardt said Hastings Read, deputy director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Division, repeatedly dropped her request that the agency provide a certified interpreter for non-English speaking residents and told her the permit was “ready.”

“I found that so disrespectful,” said Burkhardt. “Residents in the community have been following the incinerator for years and doing research to educate themselves, but the DEP (expected residents) just say, ‘I live near the incinerator and it smells really bad.'”

The complaint calls on the environmental agency to intervene in the approval process and withhold non-essential funding from the state environmental agency if it fails to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a response from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Pasco County solid waste resource reclamation facility in Shady Hills.  It is one of 10 such facilities statewide that is part of a federal civil rights complaint filed by an environmental group accusing state officials of exposing vulnerable residents to harmful emissions.
The Pasco County solid waste resource reclamation facility in Shady Hills. It is one of 10 such facilities statewide that is part of a federal civil rights complaint filed by an environmental group accusing state officials of exposing vulnerable residents to harmful emissions. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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