Will the power plants of the future burn dead bodies?

A facility in Oregon was caught using human remains to produce energy. The revelation disgusts us — but why?

Published May 18, 2014 9:30PM (EDT)

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The oil in Arabia is dribbling dry. As ever, the alternatives fail to excite us. Fracking taints water and jolts the Richter scale. In the ash chutes of coal mines, death comes early in the form of black lung. Fission made a crass menagerie of Chernobyl, where irradiated animals scurry on odd-numbered legs; and in Japan history has repeated itself. Windmills cause insomnia and hypertension, say hysterics in tinfoil hats. Much worse, they depend on whatever way the breeze blows. And solar panels are fair-weather workers, calling in sick on rainy days. So we cling to our crude, despite the petering wells, and soon the lights will dim and the heaters sputter and the radios crackle with white noise, leaving us to chain the doors and crowd around fires in trash cans as we count the weeks until Ragnarök.

The people of Oregon have found another way. In the state whose slogan is “We Love Dreamers,” America’s imagineers have discovered a source of energy that’s all upshot. On April 23, 2014, the State of Oregon admitted to burning fetuses for fuel.

The news had broken two days before. On April 21, a startling claim came to light in the BC Catholic, Vancouver’s godliest gazette, a paper not renowned for its penny dreadfuls. “The remains of British Columbia’s aborted and miscarried children are ending up in an Oregon waste-to-power plant,” the article read. The body parts are “likely mixed with everyday trash, incinerated to provide electricity to the people of Marion County.” That’s a strident complaint for any newspaper, especially a Canadian one.

But grand indictments demand a grand amount of proof, and the bullhorns of the pro-life crusade have a yen for elaborate yarns. The BC Catholic delivered, with some testimony from the top. According to British Columbia’s health ministry, “biomedical waste” is “disposed of” through “appropriate” “contracted providers” that routinely ship it to Oregon, all for profit. There, factories torch “fetal tissue” along with tumors and “amputated limbs,” helping power the homes of the Pacific Northwest. Waste not, want not.

A wave of terror rippled across the Web. In forums, on blogs, fear and loathing played their plaintive notes. Fists in mouths, bug-eyed with panic, Canucks fretted that Yankees were raking Canadian babies on coals. They worried that we Americans, with our high-octane lives full of smartphones and flat-screens, laptops and subwoofers, microwaves and electrical wheelchairs, ten apiece per household, were running on an economy of literal baby oil.

It seemed a stretch. To those against abortion as much as those in favor of it, consuming human remains for power appeared an uncivilized undertaking. The tale sounded too Swiftian, like a page ripped out of “A Modest Proposal.” (That story, in which Swift suggests a society reap its unwanted offspring for food, is a satire, not an instruction manual.)

But America was doing just that. In an emergency press conference on April 23, Sam Brentano and Janet Carlson, commissioners for Oregon’s Marion County, confirmed the rumors. The corpses were not a canard. According to USA Today, Brentano and Carlson were “shocked by reports in the Canadian media that aborted fetuses from Vancouver, British Columbia, were being sent to [an energy] facility in Brooks, Oregon.”

Carlson told the National Post they “did not know this practice was occurring until today,” even though Brentano admitted, in USA Today, to being aware that “county ordinances didn’t specifically exclude fetuses from materials that could be burned at the facility.” Yet there the truth was, as rank as barbecued flesh. The state was shoveling cadavers into the furnaces of the Covanta Marion plant. The plant has been open since 1987.

They wrung their hands and mumbled their mea culpas. They shook their heads and reiterated their ignorance. “We are outraged and disgusted,” Carlson told CBS News. In the same interview, however, Brentano offered a defense: “We provide an important service to the people of this state, and it would be a travesty if this program is jeopardized due to this find.” Indeed, Covanta Marion, which lies 10 minutes from the state capital of Salem and less than an hour from Portland, supplies power to hundreds of thousands of homes. So they halted the reception of “medical waste” to allow for an inquiry. All the while, the smokestacks wisp away.

* * * 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we’re clods of carbon from womb to tomb. We roam the earth until we don’t again, the same before as after. It’s the way of all flesh.

“Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life,” wrote Nietzsche. “The living being is only a species of the dead.” In the screw and the spasm, the birth and the cradle, the days and the acts, the fall and the croak and the casket, we sprint headlong to what we always were: a feast for worms and toadstools. Nothing begets nothing, with a short breath of air between.

To some the backlash against the smokehouses is madness. Some greet the bone stoves of Oregon, the corpse steam and the embryo engines, with a shrug and a yawn. Creasing their foreheads in the way of maligned progressives, they cite the fact that what’s dead is done. The earth will grind them to muck anyway; we’re only speeding it along. Nothing lost, something gained.

Their argument compels, but it does not compel many. Not in America, that safehouse of antique morals, and not in Europe, that vanguard of revisionist ideas. In March, a report revealed that British hospitals were burning fetuses for heat. “Aborted babies [were] incinerated to heat UK hospitals,” a piece in the Telegraph proclaimed. “At least 15,500 fetal remains were incinerated by 27 [hospitals] over the last two years alone.” Outrage rankled the limey land. The papers dripped with venom, and Channel 4 ran an irate special. Dowdy-hattted dames across the Isles, green with horror, spewed their crumpets during teatime. Amid all the hubbub, the state intervened. The British minister of health, Dan Poulter, called the practice “totally unacceptable.” He told the hospitals to abort it immediately.

Yet it is not clear why. Put aside the fact that the law doesn’t consider fetuses human. For the sake of argument, say that they are. Raise the wager. Say that not only “amputated limbs” but the intact corpses of adult humans entered the mix in Britain and Marion County. It seems that nothing changes.

Rites of repose do not please the dead. They comfort only the living. A mark of our humanity, burial has dogged our morals since the age of Neanderthals. So it should. Mourning takes time, requires a body to make sense of the incomprehensible. But when the body is discarded, when the relatives wish it away, we might as well make the most of it.

One reason for the anger in Britain was that hospital workers had cooked some miscarriages without parents’ permission. The parents might have hoped to dispose of their dead babies in style, burying them in shoebox coffins. But that was a small quirk in the trend, a freak feature, a thrill for the tabloid rags. It was not at all the case in Oregon.

Oregon traded taboo for treasure. In America, the land of promise and land of plenty, the hallowed foundry of Ford and Edison, we augured again the future of industry. Our superfluous corpses cared not a whit for formaldehyde infusions and requiems with frankincense. Funerals are for families. Convert the rest to coal. As Jefferson, that firebrand of American ingenuity, once wrote, “I am increasingly persuaded that the earth belongs exclusively to the living.”

* * *

According to Covanta Marion’s website, the plant “processes approximately 550 tons of garbage each day” and generates “13.1 megawatts of electricity each hour,” enough to power a small city. Among all that trash, amid dumpsters of rotting food and vats of industrial sewage, the plant roasts some 1,900 tons of “medical waste” each year — a fuming mountain of chucked organs, severed hands, and fetal remains that weighs more than ten blue whales.

Marion County boasts of this modern wonder on its website, recording the daily scene in an encomium of doting detail. “Each day, about 130 loaded refuse trucks arrive at the facility,” the report begins, cinematically, as though the lede in a high-gloss brochure from the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “Once there, they are weighed by truck scales,” to assure the county it is getting the full amount of fuel it has paid for. “The truck then proceeds to the tippling floor, where the garbage is dumped into a 34-foot-deep pit. Nearly 3,000 tons of refuse can be held in the pit at a time. An overhead crane mixes the garbage in the pit,” whisking it into a uniform mousse to be “burned at temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” a process whose steam “drives turbines which generate electrical power.” Weekend vacationists will want to premeditate their enthusiasm, the county warns: “Public tours are held by appointment only.”

An ambitious franchise, Covanta has exported its methods beyond the state’s borders. Covanta now operates “over 40 energy-from-waste facilities” throughout North America. Soon the fog of cadaver kilns may fill the air of all 50 states.

In its map for the future, Covanta shows a visionary flair. It hopes to facilitate the use of organic waste, perhaps some of it medical, in “Department of Transportation (DOT) Roadside/Median Work,” in “Food/Ornamentals Production at Farms/Greenhouses,” in “Golf Course Applications,” in “Rooftop Gardens,” in “Athletic Fields and Parks,” in “Landscaping.”

The possibilities astound the imagination.

* * *

While a certain logic prevails, the stomach fails, and the fumes of Covanta Marion can make a man sick. At times the belly knows what the brain discounts, and a man should make like the ancients and read the entrails. Revulsion can reveal un-obvious truths, here as elsewhere. As the ethicist Leon Kass writes, there is wisdom in repugnance.

To some, the affair reeks of Slough Crematorium, the plant in Huxley’s novel "Brave New World" where the dead are converted into fertilizer. Slough evokes a capitalist state at its nauseous extreme — a society that reduces every person, or thing, to a resource. As economics supplant ethics, whatever was, whoever was, ultimately whoever is, fades to a figure on the bottom line. Left unchecked, the machine of consumerism hollows everything into the shell of a commodity.

The dead may no longer be human, but it is inextricably human to think of them as such. And if we defile our fly-eaten kin as a matter of course, we’re bound to corrupt the way we think of our peers with a pulse. Society arose from the dignified removal of the decaying. The habit is dyed in the fabric of every national flag, from Sumer to the States. Graves kept us in a single place and laid the fundament for sedentary society. In binding us to our past, reverence for the dead — not only for deceased individuals but for the departed as a class and a category — gave us a past. In so doing, it formed the basis of cultural memory and civilization. Trashing the passed-on means junking the past. Do that, and you repackage a society’s history as its detritus. A society that constantly recycles itself — here in the most literal, the most vulgar way possible — is ultimately unaccountable to moral commitments across time. It is a society without values, answering to appetite alone — what Wyndham Lewis calls a “moronic inferno.”

This is the domain of late-stage capitalism. It is a society that eats everything — including, as is the case in Marion County, its own excrement.

Look on our dynamos of stiffs, with their tinder tots and amputation embers, and you’ll get a vision of a hellhole. The scene is a live-action Hieronymus Bosch through a filter of red, white and blue. What’s worse is its picture of the future. When the next one arises, hope they’ll pull the plug and cool the fires. Mind the dead. The dead will haunt the living.

By Rory Tolan

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