Truong Phuong Tram / Getty images

A bill moving through the Oregon Legislature would give one trash incineration company a financial reward that's intended for clean energy producers. Environmental advocates are calling foul on the bill, and fighting to kill it before it goes to a vote.

Senate Bill 451 would allow companies that produce electricity from trash incineration to receive renewable energy credits, or RECs. Companies that earn RECs can sell them to utility providers—like Portland General Electric, for example—which are required to meet state-mandated renewable energy goals. Essentially, SB 451 would make it possible for trash incinerators to cash in on incentives designed to reward clean energy producers like wind turbines and solar farms.

And there’s only one trash incinerator in Oregon that would qualify under SB 451: Covanta, a national company with a facility near Salem. In fact, Sen. Lee Beyer, a Democrat from Springfield, introduced the bill on behalf of Covanta.

“We’re talking about rewarding a trash incinerator,” says Damon Motz-Storey, a clean energy organizer with environmental advocacy group Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (Oregon PSR). “Burning plastic… could be rewarded and defined as a renewable energy source.”

Oregon PSR is part of a coalition of Oregon environmental advocates who see the legislation as backwards. They argue that because Covanta produces greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change—as well as toxins associated with burning plastic—the company shouldn’t receive any benefits that are intended to encourage clean energy production.

According to 2017 data from the Department of Environmental Quality, Covanta is the 20th-highest producer of carbon dioxide in the state, emitting 160,000 metric tons of CO2 a year. The Metro Council decided to not contract with Covanta after a 2017 study brought up potential environmental concerns.

During the 2018 election cycle, Covanta donated to Governor Kate Brown’s campaign, and the campaigns of many prominent Democratic lawmakers—including Sen. Lee Beyer, who introduced the bill on Covanta’s behalf.

Motz-Storey sees SB 451 as being bigger than just allowing Covanta to earn money off of REC sales. It would also set what he calls a “dangerous precedent” of classifying trash incineration as clean energy, which could have implications for future green legislation.

“What we’re seeing now is, they’re making this big, impassioned push to qualify themselves as renewable energy, as the state is trying to bone up on its climate goals,” Motz-Storey says. “[It would be] really egregious behavior for a Democratic supermajority to reward that type of behavior.”

For Maria Hernandez-Segoviano, the policy and advocacy manager with environmental justice nonprofit OPAL, Covanta’s gambit to be recognized as a sustainable energy source isn’t just a question of policy—it’s also an social justice issue. Covanta’s Oregon operation is in Brooks, a town about halfway between Salem and Woodburn. According to the Census 2017 American Community Survey, about 56 percent of Woodburn residents identify as Latino or Hispanic.

“It has a huge impact to that community,” she says. “We don’t have to go outside of Oregon to know that typically these types of companies are often in communities with a lot of brown and Black folks.”

Last month, a Covanta spokesperson told the Salem Statesmen Journal that because garbage incinerators tend to emit less greenhouse gases than landfills, they deserve to be classified as a clean energy producer.

Linda Wallmark, a coordinator with the group Salem 350, told the Mercury that while the issue of incinerator versus landfill is “a very complicated issue,” she is “absolutely certain [Covanta] is not a clean source of energy.”

“We would have a net loss in carbon emissions” if Covanta closed shop in Oregon, Wallmark adds. "Covanta is the largest single-point emission of carbon dioxide in the county [Marion County]."

On Monday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources voted without fanfare to refer SB 451 to the Senate Rules Committee, where a bill will typically either die or be passed directly to the senate floor. Every senator on the five-person committee voted in favor of passing the bill except for Sen. Floyd Prozanski.

During the 2018 election cycle, Covanta donated to Governor Kate Brown’s campaign, along with the campaigns of many prominent Democratic lawmakers—including Beyer, who introduced the bill on Covanta’s behalf. While the donation amounts aren’t huge (Beyer, for example, received $2,000), they do raise a red flag for environmental advocates who oppose SB 451.

“We need to question where their motives are coming from,” Motz-Storey says about Covanta. “Are they actually asking for this out of a noble sense that they’re doing a public good? Or are they trying to get a special interest carveout?”