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Medical Waste Incineration: The Hidden Agenda, Part 1

Medical Waste Incineration: The Hidden Agenda by Ellen Twist

The Ogden Martin Garbage incinerator, located five miles north of Salem, has been controversial from its inception a dozen years ago. Many citizens testified against it in 1989, expressing concerns ranging from cost of the burner to the environmental impact of incinerating raw municipal waste.

To disarm its critics, the Marion County Board of Commissioners created the Solid Waste Management Advisory Council to "represent the overall public interest and preserve trust by acting in an ethical and responsible manner."

Contrary to its mission, selected meetings are held away from public view, Council records are kept from public inspection, votes on important issues are taken without notice, and Advisory Council vacancies go unfilled for years. There has been an extraordinary incidence of member turnover and absenteeism. Astoundingly, the County Commissioners even appointed a Chairperson who had not attended a meeting in years. Strategic waste management decisions are made without notice to the Council. In short, this is politics and policy-making at its worst.

Thus far, the Solid Waste Management Advisory Council membership has been very carefully controlled by the Department of Solid Waste Director, Jim Sears. He alone has been the one to view applications and make recommendations to the County Board of Commissioners. Yet, legally, it is the Council's responsibility, not solely the Director's, to review such applications and make recommendations for membership. In this way, the membership selection process has long been a means of the county controlling the process.

As a member of the public, I recently asked to review the applications the county had received. Access denied. In April of this year, I filed a lawsuit to see these applications. They are public records, after all. I won, and the county reimbursed me for my filing and attorney fees. Yet in May, a meeting not open to the public was called to fill Council vacancies. Knowledgable and qualified applicants were ignored. Vacancies remained unfilled. Garbage politics had struck again.

This curious event gives us a clue as to why the Department of Solid Waste (DSWM) is so intent on controlling the Council membership, votes and agendas. It's quite simple.

The Marion County department of waste is cooking up another sneaky surprise for rate payers, county residents, and those who prefer a non-toxic environment. The plan is to gradually turn the county's municipal garbage incinerator into a medical waste incinerator. This means the dirtiest industry in Marion County will be even more polluting. The waste department has been laying the groundwork for the past two years and now the push is on.

So what's the problem with incinerating medical waste? Plenty. Incineration of PVC plastics (medical waste is "rich" in PVCs) creates a byproduct substance called dioxin. No one, including the department of waste, denies that dioxins are created by incineration. The toxicity of dioxin is well-documented. It is the most toxic substance known. I repeat: Dioxin is the most toxic substance known.

When dioxin is present, there is no way for a farmer to keep these toxic compounds from contaminating the animals and products he produces, nor is there a way to determine the amount of dioxin animals receive before processing and shipment. For example, when dioxin is emitted from the incinerator and deposited on pastures, it concentrates itself in the fat and fatty products of cattle after they consume the contaminated grass or bay. Beef is a human food. Another example I find ironic and alarming is the vegetables that are prepared, packaged and shipped less than a quarter of a mile north of the county's garbage incinerator. Should there be a warning label on the packages? Dioxin may also be consumed by us through other foods, including pork, chicken, milk and eggs.

Besides being incredibly toxic, dioxin has another nasty habit. Once dioxin is ingested, it does not go away. It is permanently stored and builds up in the body fat forever. Dioxin can trigger a cancer, immune system problem, or any number of serious health disorders. The higher in the food chain, the more susceptible one is to dioxin poisoning.

The danger to us is that we are at the top of the food chain, live the longest, and therefore are at most risk. What does this mean? It means that when you eat dioxin-contaminated foods, this substance will always be in your body, accumulating.

That's why it is so very important to slow and eventually prevent the creation of dioxin locally. It is well-documented that incineration is the major cause of dioxin being created and released into the environment. Because there is a high concentration of plastic and PVC in medical waste, incineration of medical wastes is the number one method of transmitting dioxin into the environment.

The county's garbage incinerator in Brooks burned 880 tons of medical waste in 1996, averaging about 75 tons a month. 278 tons of the 1996 total was from Marion County; the remaining 500 tons of medical waste came from areas where folks are apparently smart enough not to soil their nest, so to speak.

The good news, if there is good news, is the total tonnage of medical waste at the burner has dropped to 30-40 tons per month in 1997, which, if continued, will bring in "only" about 400 tons this year. Less medical waste means less dioxin and less likelihood you or I will come in contact with it.

The bad news is the DSWM currently has the Council go-ahead to burn up to 5000 tons of medical waste per year. That is ten times the amount currently burned and to do that, it must displace locally generated municipal waste. All garbage incineration is unhealthy and unnecessary. Burning medical waste is the worst of both worlds.

Happily, there is more good news. The number of hospitals in Washington and Oregon participating in plastic recycling is increasing. This is evidently having an impact on the Brooks Burner. In addition, the American Public Health Association contributed to reducing the medical waste-stream by urging all health care facilities to explore ways to reduce or eliminate their use of PVC plastics.

This appears to be good news for Marion County residents, until one learns that the DSWM has now asked the Solid Waste Advisory Council to approve the importing of more out-ofcounty medical waste. This happened at the Council's May meeting. Remember that meeting? That was the one held recently without public scrutiny in which qualified applicants were ignored to fill council vacancies.

After considerable discussion, Rick Roemer, a member of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce, moved that the Council not vote on the issue until more could be learned. Sheila Mcllrath, a Council member representing the public, suggested the director make available to Council members the article First, Do No Harm which was given to Director Sears and Chair John Shearer days before the meeting.

Lacking good information, the Council wisely decided to have a panel discussion with experts providing pros and cons regarding the burning of medical waste (see sidebar, this page).

Director Sears maintains that burning medical waste will add no more dioxins than the burning of regular solid waste. Here, Sears' own logic stands as one of the best arguments to stop all incineration of waste and thereby stop dispersing dioxin locally.

Unfortunately Sears' interest is not in the environment, nor the health of the populace living in the shadow of the incinerator, nor in the health of folks who will ingest produce contaminated by his garbage burner. He has his eye on the revenue, as medical waste brings two and a half times more cash ($160 vs. $67) per ton than ordinary garbage.

Mr. Sears recently told his Advisory Council that he hasn't been keeping track of the medical waste burning, but that it may have already displaced some of the in-county waste. This sounds familiar. When the county first imported garbage from outside the county ten years ago, this is the way they did it. Not a word about it until questioned. Then as now, it was downplayed.

Here is the primary question: Do we invite more of the disaster of dioxin into our community by watching our county turn its garbage burner into a medical waste incinerator?

Come to the meeting on August 12th.

Ellen Twist has been attending Marion County Solid Waste Management Advisory Council meetings for several years. She recently spent four months as 0bserver of the Council meeting for the League of Women Voters. She is a member of Audubon and Coastwatch.

Citizens Against Toxins (CAT) is a local organization that meets monthly in Salem to discuss the issues of livability and industrial toxins in our community. To be on the mailing list, contact David Schreiner, 393-4363, Carroll Johnston, 364-1394, or Ellen Twist, 363-7416.

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