New research from the New School characterizes incineration as “an industry in decline.” WTE stakeholders, however, hold a different opinion.

The vast majority of U.S. incinerators are located in the country’s most marginalized communities, according to new research from the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School.

The report, which was commissioned by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), reveals that of the 73 incinerators remaining in the U.S., 79% are located in low-income communities and/or communities of color. 4.4 million people across the U.S. live within three miles of incinerators, approximately 1.6 million of whom are within a three-mile radius of the twelve top emitters of PM2.5, NOx, lead and mercury pollutants.

The majority of these “Dirty Dozen” facilities, including 10 of the 12 incinerators that emit the greatest quantities of lead annually, are located in environmental justice communities — a product, the report notes, “of historic residential, racial segregation and expulsive zoning laws that allowed whiter, wealthier communities to exclude industrial uses and people of color from their boundaries.”

Paul Gilman, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer, disputed to Waste Dive the direct health impacts of incineration, citing a 2017 Oregon Metro white paper that determined “there was not a predictive or actual increase in health issues, including for those in vulnerable or sensitive ‘at-risk’ populations such as children or the elderly.”

While the New School report acknowledges health risk uncertainties associated with toxic air emissions from incineration, it argues that lack of conclusive scientific certainty regarding the causes or consequences of harm “should not be viewed as a reason to postpone preventative measures, as affirmed by many international conventions.”

“The precautionary principle was defined at the Wingspread Conference in 1998 as, ‘When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically,‘” the report notes, highlighting the principle as a foundational tenet of the environmental justice movement. “While the direct health implications of incineration are not well studied, incinerator emissions contribute to the overall cumulative impacts that may harm [environmental justice] communities.”

Furthermore, the authors assert, incinerators are “risky investments for cities, highly capital-intensive, and the most expensive form of garbage disposal.” High construction costs (a recently-halted WTE project in New York’s Finger Lakes region was projected to cost $365 million to build) often lead companies to rely on low- or no-cost municipal bonds and other government subsidies, while expensive operation and maintenance costs (estimated by the authors to fall within an average range of $17-$24 million annually) can leave owners with tight margins and operating deficits.