Burning trash for the planet? Climate cash sets off branding frenzy.

A truck hauling garbage to the Covanta incineration facility passes a child playing football on her street that faces the facility on May 15. (Caroline Gutman for The Washington Post)

The trash burning industry was eager to show it is not a polluting relic but a pioneering clean tech sector worthy of millions of dollars in new federal subsidies. But its invitation to the Environmental Protection Agency to visit a Michigan “waste-to-energy” facility needed to be timed right.

“I don’t think we want EPA in the plant while we are setting off explosives in the boiler,” said a September email exchange between executives at Covanta Energy regarding the facility, which was about to go through the messy maintenance procedure. “The air will be filled with Ash dust and it may not have great optics.”

As the Biden administration allocates billions of dollars in new climate subsidies, environmentally challenged industries are sharpening their green pitches. The companies argue they are just as entitled to lucrative federal incentives as solar farms or electric carmakers, and are working to frame their businesses as global warming solutions. The money up for grabs from the Inflation Reduction Act and other programs are in amounts large enough to guide whether they thrive or go the way of leaded gasoline and asbestos

“How can this be a climate solution at all?” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, a Newark activist working to close the waste-to-energy plant there, and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “They are discharging mercury, arsenic, lead. I hope no one falls for this scam.”

Covanta, the incineration company that sent many of the emails, told The Washington Post that the timing of the EPA visit to a plant it operated until earlier this year was not meant to mislead regulators, but to plan for a routine yet dusty process during which plants are typically closed for tours. 05-29-23

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