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 waste-to-energy plants across Florida, according to a federal complaint filed by an environmental organization .
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 that the factories are located in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the state. The two Hillsborough facilities are located in majority minority areas, unlike the Pasco and Pinellas plants.
Waste-to-energy facilities burn food, textiles and other household waste to generate electricity. About 20% of municipal waste in Florida is incinerated for energy production, according to a 2018 industry report.
It is a renewable energy source that reduces carbon emissions from fossil fuels and limits methane production from landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But critics say the state ignores the impact of the technology on the environmental and physical health of surrounding communities.
“It’s the dirtiest form of energy possible and it poisons communities,” said Dominique Burkhardt, an attorney in the Florida office of Earthjustice, the environmental law organization that filed the lawsuit. “Calling it a ‘green power facility’ is an absolute lie.”
Garbage burning ’emits pollutants known to cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive health risks, increased risk of death and other health impacts,’ according to the complaint filed Thursday with federal officials of the environment. The complaint calls it “one of the most emissions-intensive forms of electricity generation, exacerbating the climate crisis while poisoning communities.”
Incinerators can emit 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants, according to a 2021 Earthjustice report. They emit up to 18 times more lead and 14 times more mercury, as well as high levels other harmful emissions, he said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not consider environmental justice or demographic factors when deciding where to locate the factories, according to the complaint. Consequently, many waste-to-energy facilities are located in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
A Hillsborough County spokesperson said officials should review the complaint before commenting. Neither the state nor the three other Tampa Bay 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 in Shady Hills.
- Hillsborough County Resource Recovery Facility, 350 N Falkenburg Road in Tampa.
- McKay Bay Waste Recycling Facility, 114 S 34th St. in Tampa.
- Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility, 3001 110th Ave. N in St. Petersburg.
Census data indicates that seven of the state’s 10 facilities are located in neighborhoods with an above-average share of non-white residents and five have an above-average share of non-English speakers.
It’s a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program” receiving federal funds, according to the complaint.
Federal regulators say black and Hispanic residents have higher rates of respiratory disease, diabetes and hypertension, making them vulnerable to the side effects of pollution.
Eight facilities are located in areas with a high proportion of elderly residents or young children, who are particularly vulnerable to smoke and chemicals released by burning garbage — another violation of federal protections against age discrimination , according to the complaint.
The complaint relates to a waste-to-energy plant located in the town of Doral, a predominantly Hispanic community 15 miles west of Miami. Earthjustice provided records which show that since January 2016 almost 3,000 calls have been made to a hotline complaining about the foul smells around the factory. Many refer to the Miami-Dade County Resource Recovery Facility, which is operated by Covanta Energy, by name.
“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 asked further questions of the Florida counties that operate the plants.
When the plant’s operating license was renewed earlier this year, Burkhardt said it was an opportunity for the community to have their complaints heard by state regulators. But state officials had already made up their minds, she said.
State officials said they are reviewing the complaint and will ensure community concerns about Doral’s facility are heard while considering renewing its license. “The DEP will not issue any permit that does not protect Florida’s environment and does not meet all requirements of Florida law,” a department statement said.
But Burkhardt said Hastings Read, deputy director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Division, repeatedly denied his request that the agency provide a certified interpreter for non-English-speaking residents and told him that the permit was “ready to go”.
“I thought it was so disrespectful,” Burkhardt said. “Residents in the community have been following the incinerator for years and doing research to find out, but the DEP (expected residents) just say, ‘I live near the incinerator and it smells really bad.'”
Complaint asks the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in the permitting 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.