Florida is thriving and generating more waste, which is causing concern among residents

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Business / Monday, 30 October 2023 14:51

Tampa officials are considering using funds from the Inflation Reduction Act to help expand one of the ten waste-to-energy (WTE) plants in Florida, which they claim are often preferable to landfills. Critics are worried that these plants pose a threat to public health.

Like many rapidly growing metropolitan areas, Tampa is grappling with the challenge of handling increased waste as its population grows. In response, officials are leaning towards a popular Florida approach: incineration.

"All regions experiencing growth will face a resource shortage for waste management," said Jack Mariano, Commissioner of Pasco County, located north of Hillsborough County in Tampa. "Everyone is asking: where will we dispose of our trash?"

In September, Pasco County authorities approved a $540 million plan to add a fourth boiler to the county's waste-to-energy plant, increasing its capacity by roughly 50% and generating more energy by using steam generated from burning waste in the electric grid.

According to Mariano, they plan to use funds from the Inflation Reduction Act to offset around $60 million of the project's cost, with completion expected in the summer of 2026. This plant is one of three in the Tampa area that processes solid waste, but it currently handles less than two-thirds of the waste volume of the adjacent WTE facility in Hillsborough County and one-third of the Pinellas County plant's volume to the west, according to a company representative.

It is expected that this year, the Pasco County resource recovery facility will incinerate 440,000 tons of waste, nearly 100,000 more than usual.

Waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities have been in existence for several decades, with their technology becoming cleaner and safer over time, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency and ongoing research. Regulatory bodies have required significant upgrades for many years, including the Pasco facility built in 1989. Many of these facilities are eligible for tax incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act, as reported by a representative of the Department of Energy.

Justin Rossler, Director of Solid Waste and Resource Recovery for Pasco County, stated that the waste-to-energy plant already includes "rigorous air pollution control," such as activated carbon injection for filtering harmful gases. Emissions from the facility are continuously monitored for anomalies and reported to regulatory authorities when detected.

The expansion plan includes equipping boilers with new technology to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, according to a local official. Rossler stated that once the project is completed, Pasco County will become "the first waste-to-energy facility in the country with a CO2 emissions limit specified in its permit." "We are very proud of this."

However, waste-to-energy plants deal with very hazardous materials, and even the cleanest operations release federally allowable levels of harmful chemicals produced during combustion. Recently, residents' concerns about potential health risks have gained more attention.

Last year, Ana Veil moved her family from Atlanta to a home in Doral, Florida, about 20 doors down from the Miami-Dade County waste-to-energy plant. Approximately two weeks after the move, her 14-year-old daughter began complaining of itching and burning skin. Soon after, a dermatologist diagnosed her with eczema.

Then, on February 12th, the plant caught fire and burned down, further increasing Vale's concerns.

Although recent research has linked environmental toxins, including air pollution, to an increase in eczema cases, Veil said her daughter's doctor did not draw any conclusions about the role of the waste-to-energy plant. But she believes it matters.

"We lived in Atlanta for 12 years, and she was never diagnosed with this," she said, acknowledging her limited ability to seek specialists. "We have four children. If we go to the doctor every time they get sick, it will become insane."

Veil does not plan to file a lawsuit against any authorities or Covanta, the company that operated the Miami-Dade County WTE facility and manages seven others in Florida, including the Pasco facility, but others have already done so.