State officials are endangering the health of vulnerable residents and violating their civil rights by allowing them to be exposed to the harmful emissions of 10 waste-to-energy plants across Florida, according to a federal complaint filed by an environmental organization.
Four of the plants are located in the Tampa Bay region: Two in Hillsborough County, one in Pinellas and one in Pasco. Census data shows that the plants are located in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods across the state. The two Hillsborough facilities are located in majority-minority areas, while the Pasco and Pinellas plants are not.
Waste-to-energy facilities burn food, textiles and other household trash to produce electricity. About 20 percent of municipal waste in Florida is incinerated for energy production, according to a 2018 industry report.
It’s a renewable energy source that reduces carbon emissions from fossil fuels and curbs methane generation from landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But critics say the state is ignoring the toll the technology takes on the environmental and physical health of surrounding communities.
“It’s the dirtiest form of energy possible and it’s poisoning communities,” said Dominique Burkhardt, an attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, the environmental law organization that filed the complaint. “Calling it a ‘green energy facility’ is an absolute lie.”
Burning garbage “emit(s) pollutants known to cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive health risks, increased risk of death, and other health impacts,” according to the complaint submitted Thursday to federal environmental officials. The complaint calls it “one of the most emission-intensive forms of electricity production, exacerbating the climate crisis while poisoning communities.”
Incinerators can emit 2.5 times more greenhouse gasses than coal-fired plants, according to a 2021 Earthjustice report. They emit up to 18 times more lead and 14 times more mercury, along with elevated levels of other harmful emissions, it said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not consider environmental justice or demographic factors when deciding where the plants should be located, the complaint said. As a result, many waste-to-energy facilities are located in majority-minority neighborhoods.
A Hillsborough County spokesperson said officials need to review the complaint before commenting. Neither the state nor the other three Tampa Bay municipalities — Pasco County, Pinellas County and the city of Tampa — that operate the other facilities responded to a request for comment. The facilities are:
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- Pasco County Resource Recovery Facility, 14230 Hays Road in Shady Hills.
- Hillsborough County Resource Recovery Facility, 350 N Falkenburg Road in Tampa.
- McKay Bay Refuse-to-Energy Facility, 114 S 34th St. in Tampa.
- Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility, 3001 110th Ave. N in St. Petersburg.
Census data indicates that seven of the state’s 10 facilities are located in neighborhoods with a higher than average share of non-white residents and five have an above-average share of non-English speakers.
That’s a violation of the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program” receiving federal funds, according to the complaint.
Federal regulators say Black and Hispanic residents have higher rates of respiratory disease, diabetes and hypertension — all of which makes them vulnerable to the side effects of pollution.
Eight facilities are located in areas with high shares of elderly residents or young children, who are especially vulnerable to the smoke and chemicals released by burning garbage — another violation of federal protections against age discrimination, the complaint said.
The complaint focuses on a waste-to-energy plant located in the city of Doral, a predominantly Hispanic community 15 miles west of Miami. Earthjustice provided records that show that since January 2016, nearly 3,000 calls were made to a hotline complaining about sickening smells around the plant. Many refer to the Miami-Dade County Resources Recovery Facility, which is operated by Covanta Energy, by name.
“Covanta prides itself on being a good neighbor to communities around the country,” said a statement from the company. “The county-owned facility has been in Doral for decades and one of South Florida’s most exclusive communities has grown around it.” The company directed further questions to the Florida counties that operate the plants.
When the plant’s operating permit came up for renewal earlier this year, Burkhardt said it was the community’s chance to have its complaints heard by state regulators. But state officials already had made up their minds, she said.
State officials said they are reviewing the complaint and will ensure the community’s concerns about the Doral facility are heard while considering whether to renew its permit. “DEP will not issue any permit that is not protective of Florida’s environment and does not meet all requirements of Florida law,” said a statement from the department.
But Burkhardt said Hastings Read, deputy director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Division, repeatedly shut down her request that the agency provide a certified interpreter for non-English-speaking residents and told her that the permit was “ready to go.”
“I found it to be so disrespectful,” Burkhardt said. “Residents in the community have followed the incinerator for years and do the research to educate themselves, but the DEP (expected residents) to just say: ‘I live near the incinerator and it smells really bad.’”
The complaint asks the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in the permitting process and withhold non-essential funding from the state environmental agency if it does not comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a response from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.