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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .