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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.
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:
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.
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:
Combustion facilities also generate several forms of waste:
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:
MassDEP regulates municipal waste combustors to ensure that their emissions do not pose significant risks to public health or the environment.
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.
The owner/operators of the five largest combustion facilities in Massachusetts are required by MassDEP to submit:
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.
Dry scrubbersSelective non-catalytic reduction
Carbon injectionFlue gas recirculation
Units 1 & 2:
Fabric filter/electrostatic precipitator hybrid
Selective non-catalytic reduction
Selective non-catalytic reductionCarbon injection
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:
Depending on the circumstances, MassDEP may:
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.