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Updated: 2-alarm fire at Lorton incinerator was ‘deep-seated and will take multiple days to extinguish’


Photo  Tweeted by @ffxfirerescue by @mountainstwin1

We’re working to get more on this story from Fairfax County fire and rescue officials. Here’s what we know now. 

From Covanta

The I-95 Energy/Resource Recovery Facility, operating as Covanta Fairfax, Inc., began commercial operation in June 1990. The facility processes more than 3,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste for a population of more than 900,000 in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia. The 22.9-acre facility in Lorton, VA, sells more than 80 megawatts of renewable energy – enough energy to meet the needs of over 80,000 homes. It is the first Covanta facility to have a system to recover very small particles of non-ferrous metal for recycling. 


From Fairfax County fire and rescue: 

On Thursday, February 2, at approximately 9:09 p.m., units were dispatched for a reported fire in a building located in the 9800 block of Furnace Road in the Lorton section of Fairfax County. Units from Fire Station 19, Lorton, were first on scene and observed a significant amount of fire and smoke coming from the rear and roof of a four-story building. Due to the size of the building and the amount of fire, a second alarm was immediately requested. Firefighters worked to contain the fire and prevent further damage. Once the fire was contained units began an aggressive attack to extinguish the fire.

The building is the Covanta Fairfax Waste to Energy Facility. It was occupied at the time of the fire. All employees were able to safely exit the building. At this time, there are no reported civilian or firefighter injuries.

Fire investigators have determined that the fire originated on the tipping floor of the building and extended to the holding pit which was filled to capacity. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Units are currently operating on the scene. The fire is under control. However, it is deep-seated and will take multiple days to extinguish. Fire Chief Bowers and command staff are planning for multiple operational periods to safely and effectively deploy firefighters and resources to extinguish the fire.

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Update 1:30 p.m. 

From Covanta spokesman James F. Regan:

As of this morning, the fire is under control and contained to the cement waste pit. No injuries have been reported and fire fighters remain on site. The cause of the fire is under investigation. The plant was shut down in a controlled manner and early assessments show the primary plant systems are intact, with damage contained to the tipping hall and roof.”

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  • Do the firefighters realize how toxic these fumes are? Do they know that the recent fire at Covanta’s Montgomery County, Maryland incinerator (at a much smaller incinerator) burned for about two weeks? Or that 19 firefighters there have since filed for workers’ compensation?

    • Terry

      Once again – what is the source of your information please?

      • The fact that it burned for about two weeks was in news reports and also brought up at a Montgomery County Council meeting on the issue yesterday, where Covanta officials made a presentation to the county council. The info on the 19 firefighters was also from that meeting. The fact that burning trash with no pollution controls creates toxic fumes is a matter of common sense and decades of experience on these issues.

        • Patricia Dennis

          How would you solve the trash problem?

          • Patricia Dennis

            If we can’t burn it, bury it, take it out to the ocean, what is left? Recycling isn’t going to work for everything.

  • Just like Covanta to use this — at least their 4th fire in their incinerator fleet in the last two months — as an opportunity to tout how their trash incinerator is considered to be “renewable” energy, even though it’s filthier than coal by every measure? Maybe they’d like to explain why this one incinerator of theirs is the only one to be singled out by the state of New Jersey (where Covanta is based) as NOT eligible to sell their energy for Renewable Energy Credits to New Jersey’s renewable energy program?

    Hint: it has to do with the fact that this incinerator’s nitrogen oxide emissions and ash testing don’t meet New Jersey’s stricter laws. The nitrogen oxide emissions from Covanta’s incinerator in Lorton are so extreme that they’re the largest source of this pollution that triggers asthma attacks within 20 miles of DC — even worse in 2014 than the two airports in the area, according to the latest EPA data.

    • Terry

      What is your source of all this information you have on Covanta? My husband has worked for this company for nearly 20 years and has worked with pollution control equipment for power plants much longer. This is the first I’ve heard about their emissions being extreme at all. I’d like to know how you’re so knowledgeable about them

      • Hi Terry – I’m sure your husband has a lot of insight he could provide, such as why the Covanta Fairfax incinerator’s NOx emissions are so outrageously high compared to other incinerators that have the same (selective non-catalytic reduction) pollution control equipment installed. I’d love to hear an explanation.

        The data showing them to be the largest source of NOx within 20 miles of DC is from what the company reports to EPA’s National Emissions Inventory, which comes out every three years. The latest data just came out last fall for 2014. I’ve crunched their numbers for 2008 and 2011 and they used to be second to Dulles Airport, but in 2014, they’re even worse than the airport. The same database shows that they’re responsible for 75% of the air pollution from stationary sources in all of Fairfax County. I know this because I do my homework and regularly work with databases like these to help people understand pollution sources. The info on New Jersey is cited in this link that I shared:

        The direct link to the source is here on the state of New Jersey’s website: See pages 8-9 where they say “On the basis of emissions of nitrogen oxides, the Covanta Fairfax municipal solid waste facility is not equivalent to the NJ facilities from an air pollution control perspective.” It goes on to point out how the ash testing is inadequate and not up to NJ standards. Based on a review of their files at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, they’re not really listening to VA state regulations, either, and have an ongoing dispute with the state over ash testing (as of a few years ago, at least). NJ conclude, in denying this one incinerator permission to sell into NJ’s renewable energy program: “Therefore, based on the above analyses, this facility does not meet the NJDEP’s regulatory requirements that would apply to a similar facility located in New Jersey.”

    • Zephaniah Snyder

      Would you rather the garbage go into the ground where it takes up acres and acres a yr and have it leach into your water supply? Or maybe you would rather we barge all the trash into the ocean so it can ruin them instead? Just wondering what your solution would be on the matter of the U.S garbage? I myself would rather burn it down, save land space and put out less pollution then a vehicle does. Covanta put in millions and millions into the fairfax baghouse to remedy the issues they were having and believe in a clean environment, being safe and producing green energy..

      • Ocean dumping is illegal and not an option. Incineration doesn’t avoid landfilling, but just makes for smaller, but more toxic, landfills. All landfills eventually leak (usually within 20 years), and incinerator ash leaches more toxins into groundwater than unburned trash. The danger of landfills is not their size, but toxicity, as you point out in your concern for groundwater. For every 100 tons burned, 70 tons end up as air pollution and 30 tons end up as ash. That’s WITH the expensive air pollution controls. Even with those controls, they’re still far dirtier than a coal plant of the same size would be, by every measure. This incinerator is responsible for 75% of all stationary sources of air pollution in the county, and there are 20 other sources in EPA’s National Emissions Inventory. Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or to make energy, so as bad as landfills are, it’s better to directly use landfills instead of sending them toxic ash after polluting the air. Better yet, let’s follow the lead of other jurisdictions in the area that are moving toward zero waste plans to minimize what has to be landfilled.

  • Those interested in learning more about incineration in general, or this specific incinerator, should check out these pages:

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