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Incinerators and coal factories equal in dismal economic benefits, U.S. study says

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Right: Metro Vancouver Zero Waste Committee Chair Malcolm Brodie.

As part of its Clean Energy Act, BC does not allow coal-fired power generation. Meanwhile, Metro Vancouver is pursuing a $480 million plan for waste-to-energy incinerating garbage, which a U.S. study written in 2011 says will be at least as bad as coal-fired power plants in terms of the economic value compared to the environmental damage incurred.

“Seven industries have air pollution damages that are clearly larger than their VA (value-added)," the "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy" report says.  Published in the respected American Economic Review, the report goes on to say that  these seven are solid waste combustion, petroleum-fired electric power generation, sewage treatment, coal-fired electric power generation, stone mining and quarrying, marinas, and petroleum and coal products.

The paper, published in 2011, scrutinizes emissions from polluting industries in the United States and determines that incinerators, along with a number of other industries, cause more damage to the economy than the value they add to the marketplace.

But since the study came out, technologies have improved for reducing incinerator pollution. Metro Vancouver Zero Waste Committee Chair Malcolm Brodie said in an op-ed last fall that the new incinerator would be built to have minimal impact on air quality, and that the existing incinerator in Burnaby had undergone substantial upgrades to reduce emissions. 

"And as result of its advanced and continuously improving pollution control technologies, the Burnaby facility has an excellent performance record and no discernible impact on air quality," he wrote.

The authors -- Yale economics professors Robert MendelsohnWilliam Nordhaus and asst. economics Prof. Nicholas Muller at Middlebury College -- argue in the report that in a free market, the final price of a product does not reflect the indirect cost of damage to the environment.

The authors used models and data to calculate physical and economic damage, and calculated a Gross External Damage (GED) of each polluting industry by measuring emissions of sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter and the social cost of these emissions on health.

Of 17 industries examined, solid waste combustion and incineration topped the list with the highest damage to value-added ratio. Coal fired power plants, meanwhile, ranked at number four.  

The paper's authors also suggest that consumers are not paying for the full price for these industries, as all costs are not being calculated.

The study determines that the total gross external damage from all industries in 2002 is $184 billion, with utilities such as incineration and the agricultural/forestry sector generating 51 per cent of those costs.

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