PORTLAND, Ore. — County commissioners gave final approval Thursday to an order to stop an incinerator in Oregon from receiving medical waste until procedures are in place to ensure no fetal tissue is burned to generate power.
While taking the action, Marion County commissioners Sam Brentano and Janet Carlson said they were horrified to learn that the Marion County Resource Recovery Facility in rural Brooks might be burning medical waste that includes fetal tissue to generate electricity. Both strongly oppose abortions.
“We’re going to get the bottom of it,” Carlson said. “I want to know who knew, when they knew, how long they had known this was going on.”
Brentano, however, noted that the county ordinance that sets the parameters for what can be accepted at the waste-to-energy plant allows for all human tissue.
“No rule or law has been broken, but there’s an ethical standard that’s been broken,” he said.
The decision came about a month after reporters in the United Kingdom discovered that health authorities there used fetal remains to generate power at medical facilities. The Department of Health quickly banned the practice.
The Oregon facility is a partnership between the county and Covanta, a New Jersey-based firm that operates energy-from-waste power generation plants. The Marion County plant processes 550 tons of municipal solid waste a day, with only a small portion coming from medical sources. It sells the power to Portland General Electric.
Jill Stueck, a Covanta spokeswoman, said the company is cooperating with the suspension, and it does not seek out the waste that mortified commissioners.
“No one is saying bring us fetal tissue,” Stueck said.
Some of the fetal material came from the Canadian province of British Columbia, where regional health authorities have a contract with waste management firm Stericycle and send biomedical waste, such as fetal tissue, cancerous tissue and amputated limbs to the Oregon facility, said Kristy Anderson, a spokeswoman with the British Columbia Health Ministry.
Stericycle, based in Lake Forest, Ill., has been criticized by anti-abortion groups for years because it disposes of aborted fetuses collected from family planning clinics. Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Jeff Bickford, environmental services division manager in Marion County, said the facility there has been taking material from British Columbia for five to seven years. He said clinical waste providers such as Stericycle bring in medical waste ranging from syringes and body parts to laboratory cultures and bodily fluids after hospitals and clinics place it into red bags and sealed containers.
“You’ve got biological agent and infectious diseases in there, so they’re never opened once they’re sealed,” Bickford said.
Brentano said the county plans to rewrite its ordinance to spell out that no tissue from fetuses can enter the incinerator, and the providers will have to develop a workable system.
He stressed that other medical waste would be accepted.
“So if someone loses an arm, loses a finger?” Carlson asked at the meeting.
“That should go in and be burned,” Brentano replied. “As gross as that is.”