By Victor V. Saulon, Sub-Editor
PHILIPPINE LAW has not kept pace with developments in waste-to-energy technology, leaving communities surrounding these projects at risk from the pollutants they generate, which may cause cancer and other health problems, an energy technology expert said.
“There are some safety issues with regard to the engineering of the technology itself,” said Jorge A. Emmanuel, Ph.D., energy technology specialist at Siliman University, in an interview.
“When I was studying many of the waste-to-energy technologies, I found many engineering issues. It’s the reason why many of them actually end up shutting down after several years,” he added.
A number of local government units (LGUs) are building plants that produce energy from waste, or are in the process of securing agreements, including financing.
“But our biggest concern has to do with the emissions that come out. We know that the waste-to-energy plants produce a host of pollutants, particulate matter, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and then the most dangerous chemical we know in science — the chlorinated dioxins and furans,” said Mr. Emmanuel, an adjunct professor at Silliman University’s Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences.
The pollutants are produced by the facilities at various levels, he said. The residue after burning waste to produce energy, whether ash or slag, also contains toxic materials.
Pollution-control equipment concentrates the materials from the air, making it a bit cleaner, and places them in filter containers. These materials even find their way into the wastewater that comes out, he added.
“All of these are a big concern because in the Philippines, we do not have regulations, for example, on what is our limit of dioxin in the ash or our limit of dioxin in the wastewater,” he said.
“And for the air, we only require, I think, one or two tests a year, and in the studies that I’ve looked at unless you measure the dioxins continuously, you’ll miss a lot of the high levels of dioxins that is created throughout the year,” he added.
Mr. Emmanuel said existing technologies are costly and may not be included in the solutions being sold by foreign entities to the Philippines to maximize their profit.
“That to me is sort of a double standard,” he said.
“We have as much a right to protect our people’s health and our environment,” he said, referring to the solutions being denied to the Philippines by the countries where these came from.
One project that Mr. Emmanuel evaluated is Davao City’s waste-to-energy project, which is expected to produce around 12 megawatts of electricity once completed in the next four years.
Davao City’s facility will be funded in part by a ¥5.013 billion (P2.5 billion) in official development assistance from the Japanese government, and in part from possible private sector investors.
He said he sent several pages of comments regarding the design of the equipment, the toxic materials that will be released, and how the facility will commit Davao City to having to provide a certain quantity of waste per day to produce energy.
“It will undermine whatever work they’re doing in trying to recycle, reduce, minimize their waste,” he said.
He said legislation to facilitate the entry of waste-to-energy plants would go against the spirit of Republic Act No. 8749 or the Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999, and RA 9003 or the law the provides for an ecological waste management program.
“The law to me seems to be quite clear and that is we can’t allow incinerators, which we defined as the burning of the waste that produces [noxious] and toxic fumes, and that’s exactly what these things do,” he said.
“My fear is that this will enable this vicious cycle of continuing to produce waste in our society instead of actually reducing it,” he said.
In contrast to some of Mr. Emmanuel’s views, a professor at the University of the Philippines downplayed the levels of dioxins and furans produced by waste-to-energy facilities.
Florencio C. Ballesteros, Jr., Ph.D., an associate professor at the university’s environmental engineering graduate program, said the temperatures involved in the incineration process addresses the concerns on pollutants.
“As long as you operate beyond 800 degrees centigrade, you don’t generate [those] dioxins and furans,” he said.
“And then there’s also the second process that can mitigate or can remove dioxins if ever it’s generated at all,” he added, referring to a redundant process after the combustion to produce energy from waste in which the resulting gases are treated.
“We should not have a blanket statement that all waste-to-energy things are bad,” he said, adding that the technology is proven and that many countries have embarked on these projects.