Cleveland's Plan to Build a Garbage Incinerator Goes Up in Smoke
By Sandy Buchanan
The City of Cleveland’s plans to build a garbage incinerator on the city’s west side fell to pieces in late March when it fired the project consultant. Cleveland Public Power (CPP) had signed a $1.5 million no-bid contract in March 2010 with Peter Tien of Princetown Environmental Group to design the proposed facility.
Tien was fired for submitting faulty design reports, including error-ridden financial projections. All of the plans for this plant were based on Tien’s design and the use of the Kinsei-Sangyo technology he represents.
Citizens hard work pays off
In January and February, hundreds of Clevelanders attended six public hearings to voice their opposition to the city’s plan. On Feb. 23, the day the official comment period on the facility’s proposed air pollution permit ended, two significant events occurred that vindicated the public’s objections:
1) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says air permit violates the Clean Air Act
The U.S. EPA told CPP that its proposed facility would be classified as an “incinerator” and would be required to follow the rules as such, rather than as just a “gasifier” as the city claimed. The EPA said the incinerator would be considered a new “major” source of pollution, and would be subject to stronger monitoring and pollution reduction measures than “minor” sources.
The U.S. EPA also said the city and Ohio EPA should abandon the permit that had been submitted and start the process all over again.
CPP, with consultants hired by Peter Tien, scrambled to respond to the U.S. EPA’s evaluation by announcing it would have three combustion units at its proposed garbage incinerator rather than four. CPP also said it would raise the height of the smoke stacks from 175 to 200 feet, and change the emissions of nitrogen oxide to be just under the federal threshold for a major polluter.
However, the amount of harmful pollution from the plant remained essentially the same in the new configuration. The revised version of the incinerator would emit 78 tons of soot—virtually the same as the previous plan. It would emit more dioxin and would still be the largest mercury polluter in Cuyahoga County. Raising the stacks would only spread the pollution over a larger area, affecting more people. The status of the permit is now unclear, due to the U.S. EPA’s comments and the fact that the city’s plan was based on Tien’s design.
2) Cleveland notifies Tien its plan to terminate his contract
The city sent Tien a warning letter on Feb. 23, telling him it planned to terminated his contract unless he could “cure his deficiencies” within 10 days. By March 7 he had submitted a new report. However, the new report contained many of the same errors, including faulty financial projections and basic mathematical errors. The termination was made final on March 22.
Public support builds for recycling and composting
At each of the public hearings for the incinerator, Cleveland Solid Waste Commissioner Ronnie Owens described the city’s plans to roll out a citywide curbside recycling program. Citizens expressed strong support for this program, and challenged the city’s relatively low goal of recycling 25 percent of its waste stream, when 62 percent of the waste stream is recyclable.
Citizens also urged the city to become a leader by developing a strong composting program, given the robust local urban agriculture movement and the significant portion of waste that can be composted. The incinerator, as planned, would have burned all compostable organic waste, since it would need the high heat content of those wastes. Ohio Citizen Action, Earth Day Coalition, Environmental Health Watch and other groups are planning on holding a day-long citywide forum on recycling and composting on Saturday, June 2. For more information on this event, contact Sandy Buchanan at email@example.com or Chris Trepal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cleveland Public Power doesn’t need an incinerator to meet “advanced energy” standards
In its full page ads promoting the incinerator in January, CPP said the alternative to building the facility is to “keep doing what we are doing,” including “continue buying 99.9 percent of our power from the market.” CPP also said it needs to build the incinerator to “obtain electric generation that helps meet the Advanced Energy Portfolio Standards goals for CPP.”
Both of these claims are red herrings. CPP has in fact already signed long term “take or pay” contracts with American Municipal Power (AMP) to become, in effect, owners of at least 75 megawatts of baseload power and 60 megawatts of intermediate power that does not come from the market. The intermediate power has already come on line, and most of the other new plants are slated to go on line in 2012 and 2013. This means CPP has already committed to having at least 40 percent of its baseload power come from non-market sources.
These contracts include 50 megawatts of power from AMP’s new hydro plants on the Ohio River. The hydro power meets the city’s definition of “advanced energy,” and will allow the city to fully meet, and likely surpass, its own standard of purchasing 15 percent of its power by renewable sources by 2015. CPP does not need a municipal waste incinerator to meet this standard.
Power from an incinerator would not be “clean” or “green.” Megawatt for megawatt, the proposed incinerator would be more polluting than a new coal-fired power plant, according to the incinerator’s proposed air pollution permit. At the public hearings, citizens urged CPP to invest in real sources of renewable energy and to investigate solar power, wind power and energy efficiency.
For more information, visit www.noclevelandincinerator.blogspot.com.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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