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Covanta Fairfax Trash Incinerator in Lorton, Virginia, USA


Lorton is a census-designated place in Fairfax County, Virginia, United States, 20 minutes outside Washington D.C. The area is home to Covanta Fairfax, the nation’s fourth largest trash incinerator which has led to residents suffering from a wide array of health issues.

Lorton, Virginia is quite the anomaly compared to the rest of Fairfax County. Fairfax is the third wealthiest county in the United States with a mean household income of more than $87,000, which is higher than the national average. However, within five miles of Covanta Fairfax, the mean income of residents is lower than that of the overall county. The infrastructure in this area is quite dreary in contrast to the rest of the county, with lots of noise pollution and the foul stench of burning trash filling the air. It is also important to note that there is much racial disparity in the whole of Fairfax County, particularly close to the Covanta Fairfax incinerator, as the majority of residents in the neighborhood with greatest proximity to Covanta, are people of color. 26% of residents of this neighborhood are white, compared to 68.30% of the entire county of Fairfax. The remainder of the neighborhood is 31% black, 32% Asian, 8% Hispanic, and 5% multi-racial/other [6][9].

Lorton has been suffering environmental racism and injustices for decades. Originally, Washington D.C.s prisons were located in Lorton from 1910 until 2001, adjacent to a landfill containing toxins known to increase the chances of bladder cancer and leukemia. Methane from the landfill made its way into the prison's plumbing, which eventually caused an explosion that killed an inmate, burned another, and caused a mass evacuation. Covanta Fairfax Inc., also known as an Energy/Resource Recovery Facility, began operation in 1990 alongside the landfill. Toxic ash from the trash incinerator was dumped in the landfill until the landfill closed in 2014 thanks to the work of community activists. Once the prisons were finally shut down in 2001, a housing development was built right next to the incinerator. This housing development became what is now called Lorton Valley, Covanta Fairfax’s greatest victim [9].

The facility's closest residents often complain about the aggravating noise pollution that comes from the incinerator, the vehicles constantly flowing in and out of the area, and the endless stench of old, burning trash. In a single day, Covanta Fairfax processes over 3,000 tons of municipal solid waste. However, more than half of this waste does not come from Lorton or even Fairfax County, but Washington D.C., whose waste is transferred through Fort Totten and Benning Road—which are majority black neighborhoods and communities—to be burned in Lorton. The transferring and burning of this waste have led to incredibly large rates of pollution and health issues. Covanta Fairfax is responsible for 75% of the industrial air pollution in the county and is the second-largest source (behind Dulles Airport) of nitrogen oxide within 20 miles of our nation's capital ( Washington D.C). The trash incineration that is carried out at this facility is far more polluting than burning coal. Compared to a coal plant of identical proportions, Covanta Fairfax releases over twice as much carbon dioxide, three times as much nitrogen oxide, six times as much lead, 70% more sulfur dioxide, and 28 times as much dioxin. Pollution as acute as this is a major contributor to a large array of health issues including but not limited to asthma, cancers, chronic bronchitis, heart and lung diseases, learning disabilities, emphysema, and reproductive disorders [4][7][8][9][13].

In 2015, Covanta Fairfax’s current contract was meant to expire and D.C.’s Department of Public Works had issued a request for a new one, which spurred much of the activism in the region. Their current contract had already been extended twice in both 2010 and 2012. The new contract proposal would allow Covanta Fairfax to burn Washington D.C.’s waste for an additional 5 to 11 years. The facility would concretely have five more years of trash incineration, then two chances for reevaluation in three-year intervals. The contract would amount to $35,661,880.00 and last until December 31, 2020 before being reassessed. Until then, Covanta would continue to collect solid waste from Washington D.C. and have it transported to Lorton, Virginia via the Fort Totten and Benning Road Transfer Stations. The waste collected would include everything from household garbage to metal to tires and practically anything else that can be burned. The waste would then be converted to either electricity or ethanol to be sold [1][8][9].

This contract proposal was immediately met with backlash by both community members and over 20 environmental organizations. They argued that as the region’s second-largest source of nitrogen oxide, the trash incineration facility is detrimental to the health of residents with asthma and other respiratory issues. They also claimed that the trash incineration came at a much larger expense than using a landfill. Lastly, they brought up the issue of social injustice by calling out the environmental racism embedded in the trash incinerator industry. Not only is the incinerator an environmental justice issue, but accepting the new contract would backtrack the many zero-waste initiatives the region had recently been taking. Instead, the Environmental Justice Network, along with 20 other organizations, proposed letting the current contract expire so the region could work towards its zero-waste goals by focusing on reducing, reusing, recycling, composting and more, and anything that cannot be reduced, reused, recycled, or composted should be anaerobically digested and then placed in a landfill. This would decrease the stench of incineration and landfills while also aiding the region in meeting its climate change goals [3][4][9].

Mike Ewall, the founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, spearheaded much of the work to push policy makers to deny the new proposal. A total of 20 environmental groups including Breathe DC, Inc., Clean Water Action, and the Sierra Club DC Chapter signed off on a letter with the Energy Justice Network that was sent to the city council pleading that they do not renew the Covanta Fairfax contract. The American Lung Association wrote to the city council as well to raise concerns about the many toxic air pollutants that both children and adults in the area are exposed to. On July 13, 2015 the mayor withdrew approval for the contract, but the contract was later approved on October 6, 2015 [2][3][4][8].

Two years later, on February 2, 2017 Covanta Fairfax caught fire, prompting organizing of both community and environmental organizations. Three stories worth of trash burned from February 2nd until February 14th. The trash incineration facility was already detrimental to the health of nearby residents on a regular day of operation, thus fear of elevated health risks greatly increased during the fires. Despite the county warning residents that it was highly recommended they spend as little time as possible outside their homes at this time, none of the residents were evacuated. Staying indoors is not an option for children who need to attend school or adults who need to go to work in order to support their everyday lifestyles. By the time the fire ceased to burn, the facility’s water cannons were completely out of service, three cranes were critically damaged, the roof was scorched, and the walls had been ripped open. The investigation to determine the cause of the fire ended up being inconclusive. 

After the fire, Covanta Fairfax installed technology that would, hopefully, prevent a similar event from occurring in the future. The facility was up and running once again within the year. Despite its improvements, Lorton residents are still incredibly worried about the permanent effects that the fire and toxic smoke could have had on their health. Covanta has a disappointing history when it comes to air monitoring. The trash incineration company has had numerous air pollution violations across the country and has been fined for tampering with their emissions monitors to make their emissions appear to be lower than they are. Therefore, the Energy Justice Network worked relentlessly to gather community members to attend informational meetings and urge county supervisors to act. They compiled a list of demands for county supervisors: for the closure of the Covanta incinerator, for the community to be given proper notification and transparency when it comes to air quality and issues involving the facility, and for health monitoring and testing for toxic materials to be provided not only for Lorton residents but for every single firefighter who fought the Covanta fire. Due to Covanta’s extensive track record violating air policies, the residents of Lorton also want Fairfax County to do its own independent air monitoring. Finally, they demanded that the county look into real alternatives to the trash incinerator in order to promote zero-waste initiatives [8][11][12][13].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Covanta Fairfax Trash Incinerator in Lorton, Virginia, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Virginia
Location of conflict:Lorton
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Incinerators
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Covanta Fairfax, also known as the Energy/Resource Recovery Facility is a 9.3-hectare trash incineration facility that began operation in June of 1990 in Lorton, Virginia. The facility processes over 3,000 tons of municipal solid waste every day for over 900,000 people from Washington D.C. and the Virginian suburbs surrounding the capital. Covanta Fairfax is a waste-to-energy facility, generating more than 80 megawatts annually from condensing steam turbine generators that are then available for purchase. This is enough electrical energy to power over 80,000 homes.

According to the Covanta Fairfax official corporate website, this is the very first Covanta branch to incorporate a system that recovers non-ferrous metals for recycling. In order to control air pollution, Covanta Fairfax takes advantage of equipment such as a nitrogen oxide control system (selective non-catalytic reduction systems inject ammonia into the furnaces to chemically convert nitrogen oxide into gaseous nitrogen), fabric filter baghouses (particulate matter and fly ash are caught on the surface of the bags which removes 99.5 percent of the particulate matter from the combustion gases), a mercury control system, semi-dry flue gas scrubbers (removes more than 95 percent of sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid by spraying a lime slurry into the exhaust stream), and continuously monitors emissions. In the United States, the emissions for Covanta facilities are typically 60 to 90 percent below federal limits. Since establishing the sustainability program, Covanta has reduced emissions by approximately 53 percent [7][14].

Covanta Fairfax has been given numerous awards and recognition such as the 2010 SWANA Silver Excellence Award and the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program- 2011 Extraordinary Environmental Enterprise Facility E4. The facility has also been designated a Voluntary Protection Program Star facility by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration for workplace safety. [7]

After the Covanta Fairfax fire in February of 2017, numerous improvements were added to the facility. Fairfax County and Covanta installed non-flammable roofing material, thermal imaging cameras that would alert the fire station at the first sign of a fire, a new and improved sprinkler system, and motor-operated roof hatches. Covanta Fairfax has also been working to improve storage procedures for waste [10][11].

Project area:9.3 hectares
Level of Investment for the conflictive projectCovanta Fairfax gains around $40-$50 million per year, and the fire in 2017 cost $20 million
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:20,871 (Lorton population)
Start of the conflict:06/06/2015
Company names or state enterprises:Covanta Energy from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Energy Justice Network (
350 DC (
Breathe DC, Inc. (
Center for Biological Diversity (
Chesapeake Sustainable Business Council (
Clean Water Action (
Community Forklift Community Wellness Alliance (
DC Climate Action (
DC Environmental Network Empower DC (
Food & Water Watch (
Global Green USA (
Green Cross International Institute for Local Self-Reliance (
NAACP DC Branch (
Moms Clean Air Force - DC Chapter Save America's Forests(
Sierra Club – DC Chapter (
American Lung Association (

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Global warming, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Other Environmental impactsFoul odors
Health ImpactsVisible: Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsLoss of property values


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Proposal and development of alternatives:There have been demands for Fairfax County to implement zero waste initiatives by focusing on reducing, reusing, recycling, composting, and more. Anything that cannot be reduced, reused, recycled, or composted should be anaerobically digested and then placed in a landfill. This would decrease the stench of incineration and landfills while also aiding the region in meeting its climate change goals [3].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Covanta Fairfax continues to operate. Community organizing has decreased and there is a low level of awareness surrounding the issue and its extensive health impacts. Lorton residents continue to suffer from the odors and air pollution issues that Covanta Fairfax emits.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[1] Covanta Waste Contract: Proposal for Covanta Fairfax to be in operation for five to eleven more years (September/October 2015)

[2] Withdrawal letter from the Mayor. There was a temporary victory when the mayor denied the Covanta Fairfax’s proposal to continue operating. (July 13, 2015)

[3] Letter from 20 environmental, business, health and civil rights organizations opposing the Covanta waste incineration contract (July 6, 2015)

[4] Letter from American Lung Association to City Council (July 7, 2015)

[5] Letter from Covanta Fairfax sent to City Council with a response from the Environmental Justice Network (sent July 8-9, 2015)

[6] Environmental Justice Network

[7] Covanta Fairfax Official Site

[8] Information on the 2015 Covanta Fairfax Contract

[9] DC’s Waste and Environmental Racism

[10] Covanta Fairfax Energy-from-Waste Facility Resumes Operations

[11] After the fire: Revamping one of Covanta's biggest facilities after it went up in smoke

[12] Frequently Asked Questions about the Covanta Fire

[14] Covanta. Emissions Information

[15] DC Council: Reject the Covanta Waste Contract.

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[13] HEALTH ALERT TO LORTON RESIDENTS: Covanta Trash Incinerator Fire

Meta information

Contributor:Nakeysa Hooglund, Skidmore College, [email protected]; A.J. Schneller, Skidmore College, [email protected], Amity Wilson, Skidmore College, [email protected], Jessica Plotnick, Skidmore College, [email protected]
Last update22/04/2021
Conflict ID:5388



Graph showing where Washington DC's waste ends up

Covanta Fairfax Trash Incinerator

Picture taken by Nakeysa Hooglund (November 2019)

Smoke from Covanta Fairfax Trash Incinerator

Picture taken by Nakeysa Hooglund (November 2019)

Sign showing hazardous waste at Covanta Fairfax

Picture taken by Nakeysa Hooglund (November 2019)

Sign for Covanta Fairfax

Picture taken by Nakeysa Hooglund (November 2019)

The Covanta Fairfax Trash Incinerator Burning