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Guide Municipal Waste Combustors

There are seven waste-to-energy facilities in Massachusetts. Together, they burn more than one-third of the solid waste generated in our state. This guide provides an overview of the role they play in our state's waste management system, how they operate and are regulated, and the progress they are making toward reducing their emissions of targeted air pollutants.

Solid Waste Management in Massachusetts

Households, businesses, and institutions across Massachusetts generate nearly 8 million tons of solid waste per year. More than one-third of this material is recycled or composted. The rest is:

  • Burned in waste-to-energy facilities (municipal waste combustors),
  • Buried in modern lined landfills, or
  • Transported to out-of-state disposal facilities.

There are seven solid waste combustion facilities in Massachusetts. Learn about how these facilities fit into the state's solid waste management system, what they burn, how they work, the wastes they generate, and how their emissions are controlled. 

About Combustion Facilities

There are more than 100 municipal waste combustion facilities in operation across the United States. Seven of these are located in Massachusetts.

Municipal waste combustors burn a wide range of household and commercial solid wastes, including empty packaging and containers, consumer goods, office supplies, and numerous other items not specifically banned from disposal. Facility operators may turn away loads that contain significant quantities of banned materials, hazardous products, or wastes that are bulky or difficult to manage.

Also known as incinerators or waste-to-energy plants, these facilities burn trash at a very high temperature (approximately 2,500°F). The combustion process:

  • Shrinks waste 90 percent by volume and 75 percent by weight, so significantly less needs to be buried in landfills;
  • Converts water to steam, which then passes through turbine generators to produce renewable electricity; and
  • Reduces greenhouse gases by offsetting carbon emissions from fossil fuels and methane generation from landfills.

Combustion facilities also generate several forms of waste:

Ash Residue Must be buried in landfills that are specifically approved to accept ash.
Wastewater From cooling and ash dewatering operations.
Air Emissions The primary focus of this guide.

Air emissions from a well operated and maintained combustion facility are generally much lower than the limits established by law. Pollution controls, monitoring, and government inspections ensure that facilities are operating as cleanly as possible. At the same time, their emissions may still contain:

Acid Gases Contribute to acid rain and can cause or aggravate breathing problems.
Dioxins, Furans &
Other Chlorine-
Containing Organics
Known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects.
Fly Ash & Soot Seen as smoke; reduce visibility and can make it harder to breathe.
Mercury, Lead &
Other Heavy
Metals
Can affect the human brain, kidneys, liver, and nervous system, as well as child development.
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) Primary ingredient of ground-level ozone (smog) that can cause or aggravate breathing problems.

MassDEP regulates municipal waste combustors to ensure that their emissions do not pose significant risks to public health or the environment.

Additional Resources for About Combustion Facilities

Material Separation Plans

The five largest combustion facilities are required to submit periodic plans to MassDEP, summarizing how they will prevent discarded items that contain mercury from entering their facilities.

These Material Separation Plans (MSPs) must be submitted to MassDEP at intervals the agency designates. Each facility develops its own plan in consultation with commercial, industrial, and municipal customers.

Draft plans are submitted to MassDEP for review. The agency solicits public comment on these documents before approving them, attaching additional conditions, if necessary. Facilities then must implement their MSPs and submit annual progress reports to MassDEP.

See the individual Facility Profiles for Covanta Haverhill, Covanta of SEMASS, Wheelabrator Millbury, Wheelabrator North Andover, and Wheelabrator Saugus for their respective Material Separation Plans.

Emissions, Pollution Controls & Reporting

The owner/operators of the five largest combustion facilities in Massachusetts are required by MassDEP to submit:

  • One-time Emission Control Plans, demonstrating how and when they will use pollution control technologies to reduce air emissions, and
  • Periodic emissions reports to MassDEP, including notification of when facilities have exceeded specific emission limits.

While specific pollution controls vary from plant to plant, all facilities are equipped with systems for reducing smog-causing emissions, neutralizing acid gases, trapping fly ash and other particles, and lowering concentrations of mercury and organic chemicals.

It is important to note, however, that no combination of technologies available today can completely eliminate emissions from combustion.

See Key Actions below to access to the emissions data these facilities have reported to MassDEP and Additional Resources for the forms they use in this reporting.

See the individual Facility Profiles for Covanta Haverhill, Covanta of SEMASS, Wheelabrator Millbury, Wheelabrator North Andover, and Wheelabrator Saugus for their respective Emission Control Plan approvals from MassDEP.

Key Actions for Emissions, Pollution Controls & Reporting

Additional Resources for Emissions, Pollution Controls & Reporting

Facility Profile: Covanta Haverhill

Location 100 Recovery Way, Haverhill, MA 01835
Units 2
Daily Capacity 1,650 tons (825 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Mass Burn
Pollution
Controls

Fabric filters
Dry scrubbers

Selective non-catalytic reduction
Carbon injection

Ash Disposal Ward Hill Neck Ash Landfill, Haverhill
Class II Recycling
Program
Current Waste Characterization Study
Material Separation
Plan
MSP7 (January 2018 to December 2020)
Emission Control
Plan
MassDEP Approval
Emissions Data View Reports

Facility Profile: Covanta Pittsfield

Location 500 Hubbard Avenue, Pittsfield, MA 01201
Units 3
Daily Capacity 240 tons (80 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Mass Burn
Pollution Controls

Electrostatic precipitator
Wet scrubber
Carbon injection

Flue gas recirculation

Ash Disposal Out of State
Emissions Data View Reports

Facility Profile: Covanta of SEMASS

Location 141 Cranberry Highway, Rochester, MA 02770
Units 3
Daily Capacity 1,650 tons (825 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Refuse-Derived Fuel
Pollution Controls

Units 1 & 2:
Dry scrubber
Fabric filter/electrostatic precipitator hybrid

Unit 3:
Dry scrubber
Selective non-catalytic reduction
Fabric filter

Ash Disposal Carver-Marion-Wareham Ash Landfill, Carver
Class II Recycling Current Waste Characterization Study
Material Separation
Plan
MSP7 (January 2018 to December 2020)
Emission Control
Plan
MassDEP Approval
Emissions Data View Reports

Facility Profile: Covanta Springfield (Agawam)

Location 188 M Street, Agawam, MA 01001
Units 3
Daily Capacity 408 (136 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Mass Burn
Pollution Controls Lime spray dryers
Fabric filters
Carbon injection
Flue gas recirculation
Ash Disposal Bondi's Island Ash Landfill, Agawam
Class II Recycling Current Waste Characterization Study
Emissions Data View Reports

Facility Profile: Wheelabrator Millbury

Location 331 Southwest Cutoff, Millbury, MA 01527
Units 2
Daily Capacity 1,500 tons (750 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Mass Burn
Pollution Controls Dry scrubbers
Fabric filters
Selective non-catalytic reduction
Carbon injection
Ash Disposal Shrewsbury Ash Landfill, Shrewsbury
Class II Recycling Current Waste Characterization Study
Material Separation
Plan
MSP 7 (January 2018 to December 2020)
Emission Control
Plan
MassDEP Approval
Emissions Data View Reports

Facility Profile: Wheelabrator North Andover

Location 285 Holt Road, North Andover, MA 01845
Units 2
Daily Capacity 1,500 tons (750 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Mass Burn
Pollution Controls

Fabric filters
Dry scrubbers
Selective non-catalytic reduction

Carbon injection

Ash Disposal Peabody Monofill Associates Ash Landfill, Peabody
Class II Recycling Current Waste Characterization Study
Material Separation
Plan
MSP7 (January 2018 to December 2020)
Emission Control
Plan
MassDEP Approval
Emissions Data View Reports

Facility Profile: Wheelabrator Saugus

Location 100 Salem Turnpike, Saugus, MA 01906
Units 2
Daily Capacity 1,500 tons (750 tons per unit average)
Combustion Process Mass Burn
Pollution Controls

Fabric filters
Dry scrubbers

Selective non-catalytic reduction
Carbon injection

Ash Disposal RESCO Ash Landfill, Saugus
Class II Recycling Current Waste Characterization Study
Material Separation
Plan
MSP7 (January 2018 to December 2020)
Emission Control
Plan
MassDEP Approval
Emissions Data View Reports

MassDEP Compliance & Enforcement

Massachusetts combustion facilities typically operate within the limits established by their state environmental permits. On occasion, however, they may exceed the specified limits.

MassDEP regulations allow higher emissions for limited durations and under specific circumstances: during start-up, shutdown, certain malfunctions, or isolated operating "spikes."

The agency may take enforcement action when a facility releases excess emissions that are not covered by these exceptions and continuous monitoring or stack testing reveal that they:

  • Pose actual harm or a significant threat to public health or the environment, or
  • Indicate that facility operations and/or maintenance are deficient, or
  • Suggest that air pollution control equipment is inadequate.

Depending on the circumstances, MassDEP may:

  • Require the facility operator to test again or implement operational changes, or
  • Issue a Notice of Noncompliance (NON) requiring corrective action by a specific date, or
  • Order the facility to correct specific problems and possibly pay a financial penalty.

When emissions exceed allowable limits only barely or for a very brief period of time, MassDEP may elect to take no further action.

If a facility demonstrates a chronic pattern of noncompliance or is found to be willfully violating the law, MassDEP has the option of referring the case to the Massachusetts Attorney General or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

See Additional Resources below for additional information.

Additional Resources for MassDEP Compliance & Enforcement

Image credits:  MassDEP Flickr Photostream

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