Covanta Marion, the trash incinerator in Brooks, pictures in late February. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

A law change that would give renewable energy credits to a trash incinerator in Brooks could have long-term impacts in Marion County.

The county and Covanta, the New Jersey-based firm running the facility, have worked extensively behind the scenes to see that Senate Bill 451 makes it through the 2019 Legislature. Both have recently hired lobbyists to press the case.

The company says much is at stake. If the company can’t sell credits for cash, it would have to double what it charges Marion County to use the incinerator – or close it.

Senate Bill 451 would make Covanta Marion, the incinerator, eligible to sell renewable energy certificates.

Covanta officials said Monday that Portland General Electric already is under contract to buy the special credits. The failure of the legislation could invalidate it. Instead, Convanta Marion would sell its electricity on the open market for a cheaper price point, company official said.

“It would hurt the long-term viability of the facility,” said spokesman James Regan in a phone interview.

Covanta Marion burns garbage from Marion County and reportedly generates enough energy to power 9,000 homes.

Matthew Marler, a manager at the Brooks facility, testified at a legislative hearing Monday that the facility is aging and maintenance costs are rising. Without the added revenue, they could double the cost of disposal fees to Marion County — or close.

“To complete this essential work without this revenue from the (certificates) we would need to more than double the cost of disposal services we charge to Marion County,” he said. “Without the (certificates) in all likelihood the facility would close, and the county would be forced to send its waste to a landfill.”

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said without the incinerator operating, the county could spend $15 million on a transfer facility to bundle the waste and truck it to Arlington.

“Every day we’ll be sending 27 semi-truckloads of garbage,” he said. “That’s 9,800 semi-truckloads round trip to Arlington and back (annually). We haven’t figured out what the carbon footprint of that one is.”

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said there wasn’t a lot of support for the bill from Democrats, but did acknowledge that its failure could create an issue.

“They don’t really have an alternative in Marion County, because they don’t have a landfill,” Burdick said. “I think everyone would hate to think of the idea of trucking more garbage through the Columbia River Gorge.”

During the public hearing, worker Todd Hatfield added that he and 32 other full-time workers at the facility could lose their jobs if the proposal isn’t passed.

Sheriff Jason Myers also supported the bill, saying law enforcement need the incinerator to burn evidence — guns, paraphernalia and more.

Environmental advocates and opponents to the legislation said the trash incinerator doesn’t meet the spirit of what the renewable energy certificates were designed for – saying they should stay with wind, solar and geothermal endeavors.

A trash incinerator receiving those credits “fundamentally jeopardizes the integrity of our renewable energy standard,” said Damon Motz-Storey of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. “It’s a fundamentally bad use of our state and resources to be diverting some of these clean energy incentives to what is the 20th largest emitter of greenhouse gas in our state.”

Debates over Covanta and sending the garbage to a landfill have revolved around the emission of carbon dioxide, as well as toxins from the plastic. Supporters of the incinerator say it lessens methane gas emitted by landfills, while opponents say the amount of carbon dioxide it produces is still harmful. Additionally, while landfills release greenhouse gasses slowly, an incinerator emits it in large bursts.

“Nobody likes landfills. In this case they’re the lesser of two evils,” Motz-Storey said. “Carbon emissions from incineration of waste goes into the atmosphere immediately.”

Paige Spence, of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, argued Covanta hasn’t shared how its finances would change without the certificates, and called claims the facility would now close “disingenuous.”

“Before we start saying ‘the sky is falling, we have to close’ I think it’s really important this bill moves forward to establish what kind of contract and what kind of revenue they would be able to get into a PGE contract that did not include renewable energy certificates,” Spence said.

Regan pointed to the recent closure of Covanta Warren, another 30-year-old facility in New Jersey. He said maintenance expenses rose there faster than revenues.

“It didn’t make sense to continue to run, so we mothballed the facility,” he said

No action was taken after the public hearing.

Marion County and Covanta are on opposite sides of the table in one way, negotiating a new long-term contract for waste disposal. Decisions made by the Legislature could impact the terms of the deal, lawmakers said.

The county and company are unified in lobbying for the bill, introduced SB 451 by Sen. Beyer.

In late April, Covanta hired Paul Rainey, a lobbyist with Gallatin Public Affairs lobbyist, and then last week brought in another Gallatin hand, lobbyist Mia Noren. The hire brings up Covanta’s roster to six lobbyists, according to public filings.

“It’s an important issue for them this is not unusual,” Burdick, said of the hires. “It reminds me of the baseball issue a few sessions ago where baseball wasn’t doing well and all of the sudden they hired every lobbyist, every contract lobbyist.”

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said he was initially lobbied hard by Covanta, but he said lately its efforts largely consist of emails from the company’s employees. Dembrow serves on all three committees that have considered the proposal for renewable energy certificates.

Dembrow said Marion County has also been aggressive and fearful that Covanta won’t agree to a contract unless its the renewable energy certificates.

Marion County officials declined to comment on the lawmakers’ statements.

Marion County itself has hired two new lobbyists in recent months: Dan Jarman and Justin Freeman, both of Crosswater Strategies. They are tasked to work for the county on behalf of the renewable energy certificates proposal, as well as the sweeping cap-and-trade bill, House Bill 2020. 

“Dan and Justin are advocating for the county’s interest related to SB 451 and HB 2020,” said county spokeswoman Jolene Kelley. “Marion County has a nationally recognized solid waste and recycling system. Both bills have the potential to significantly impact that system. Our goal is to maintain, and ideally continue to enhance, value added waste reduction and recycling programs for residents and businesses.”

When asked if Marion County is coordinating its lobbying with Covanta, Kelley said the two have distinct priorities, but when those priorities overlap “the two will collaborate.”

Jarman declined to comment, deferring to Marion County.

According to Beyer and Covanta, the renewable energy certificates proposal fixes a years-old misunderstanding.

Legislation from 2010 created renewable energy credits that producers could sell to companies to offset their pollution and comply with state regulations. They could also sell them companies to lower their carbon footprints and better market themselves as “green.”

Covanta officials believed the company was included as such a producer, but the Oregon Department of Energy disagreed. Regan said the state agency has since helped them work with Beyer to craft the new proposal.

“It was a discrepancy,” he said.

Beyer said he’s talked with a former legislator who crafted the proposal, who agreed with Covanta officials. Beyer said he personally had no opinion on the bill.

With SB 451, lawmakers can now decide whether Covanta should be treated like hydro, solar, wind and biomass facilities. While it does burn organic brush like a biomass facility, it also burns trash from county residents and medical waste imported from other states.

When lawmakers vote on Covanta, the bill faces an uphill battle. Democrats have a three-to-two advantage in the Senate Rules Committee, where the bill currently sits.

“Lobbyists are working hard to get it out of Rules,” Dembrow said. “Even if they can, I’d say they face a high hurdle in the House.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson or Aubrey Wieber at troy@salemreporter.com or aubrey@salemreporter.com.