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Plan OK'd to boost intake of medical waste

SALEM — Marion County commissioners voted to dramatically increase the amount of medical waste that can be burned at a garbage incinerator near Salem.

Covanta Marion, which operates the incinerator, plans to contract with the nation's largest medical waste disposer to take up to 50 million pounds of medical waste annually from California and Washington.

Prior to Wednesday's vote, out-of-county medical waste was capped at 3 million pounds per year.

The reason for the increase is simple: Revenue from the 30-year-old incinerator has been falling, and medical waste is lucrative. The proposal could net the county as much as $3.4 million per year.

"We've led the country in our way of handling solid waste and our recycling," Commissioner Kevin Cameron said. "I want to continue to do that, but we need some way to pay for it."

Several members of the community wrote letters of opposition, citing health and environmental concerns, the Statesman Journal reported.

They raised concerns about an increase in the emission of dioxins, dangerous chemicals that can damage organs and cause cancer, as a result of increased burning of the plastics used in medical settings. Medical waste incinerators are the third-largest source of dioxins nationally, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after forest fires and backyard burning.

"Marion County can use the extra money, but to whose detriment?" Joan Lloyd of Salem testified Wednesday. "I'm asking the commissioners to please proceed with caution."

Matt Marler, business manager for Covanta Holdings, said the facility emits only a fraction of the dioxin allowed by state and federal law, and quarterly ash testing ensures material isn't hazardous.

"These emission standards are set to prevent any exposure to the public for health or environmental, so they are set well below any potential risk to the environment," Marler said.

The incinerator attracted national attention two years ago when county commissioners who strongly opposed abortion rights banned the disposal of fetal tissue. The decision came during an uproar over allegations that human fetuses were included in shipments of medical waste that arrived from Canada.

The medical waste from California and Washington will not contain fetal tissue or large body parts, Covanta officials said.