WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Attorney General Peter F. Neronha on Thursday called for pausing the state review process for a proposed medical waste-to-energy plant in West Warwick.
A New Jersey company, MedRecycler, has been presenting the project as a way to reduce waste sent to the state’s Central Landfill while creating “clean, renewable energy” through a high-heat process called pyrolysis.
But environmental groups say the proposal, which calls for processing up to 70 tons of medical waste per day, in no way represents a renewable energy project and instead poses a major environmental threat.
In a letter to the state Department of Environmental Management, the attorney general’s office raised “numerous procedural and substantive concerns” about the proposal and asked the agency to halt its review of MedRecycler’s license application “until the proper technology analysis is conducted and all required certifications are obtained.”
“In matters like these, involving untested technology, strict adherence to the regulatory scheme’s substantive requirements, and going beyond the minimum public input required, is absolutely critical,” Neronha said.
In the letter to DEM, Special Assistant Attorney General Alison B. Hoffman said, “Unmitigated, pyrolysis has the potential to emit many of the same toxic and noxious pollutants that necessitated the phaseout of medical waste incinerators nationwide.”
To protect public health, the state’s regulatory review must hold MedRecycler’s application to the most stringent standards. “To date, they have not been held to those standards,” she wrote.
DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said the agency received more than 600 comments as part of the public comment period that closed on Wednesday, including the letter from the attorney general’s office.
“Given that the department must evaluate and respond to comments on the record as part of its decision-making process, it is not appropriate for DEM to respond to the substance of any individual letters at this time,” she said.
Nicholas Campanella, CEO of MedRecycler’s parent company, issued a statement, saying, “The Attorney General correctly states that our proposal should be subject to thorough scrutiny – we couldn’t agree more. This is why we have submitted an 800-page application to DEM and worked with them and the West Warwick Planning Board for more than two years to make certain that we are a safe and valued neighbor in Rhode Island.”
Campanella said the company agreed to dozens of safety conditions required by DEM. “We look forward to operating a facility that will create jobs and renewable energy in a safe, responsible way, while extending the life of the Central Landfill and generating millions in tax revenue for the community,” he said.
Kevin Budris, staff attorney for the zero waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office, said he was encouraged by Neronha’s action.
“This project has significant legal shortcomings with respect to this application, and the proposed facility poses significant risks and is improperly sited,” he said. “I am glad to hear that the attorney general’s office is recommending heightened scrutiny.”
Budris said it’s misleading for MedRecycler to present this project as a way to divert waste from the landfill. “The way to do that through diversion and reuse and recycling – not through burning waste,” he said.
The company says it would not burn the medical waste; rather, it would heat the material to high temperatures in a process called pyrolysis, which has been used for many years. The medical waste wouldn’t combust because no oxygen would be present, but the process would produce “syngas” to power engines that create electricity.
“I guarantee that the project is going to be safe,” Campanella said during a recent public hearing. “We’re going to be a good neighbor and do whatever is required by professionals that are reviewing our process.”
Budris said the company is simply splitting up the process – heating the waste to 1,400 degrees in the absence of oxygen to avoid combustion, but byproducts such as syngas, tar and oils end up being burned.
“In effect, everything ends up being burned, and it has the same potential environmental impact as an incinerator,” he said. “It is a top environmental concern in Rhode Island because you have a company that is trying to make the state a destination for burning medical waste and plastic in the Northeast.”
MedRecycler says the facility would create about 30 jobs for local residents, and the project would benefit up to 100 construction workers and electricians. Also, it said the project would produce $4 million in tax revenue for West Warwick schools and infrastructure.
With the public comment closed, DEM now has 90 days to decide whether to issue a license for the facility, which would occupy 48,000 square feet, or about 10 percent, of an existing building at 1600 Division Road in West Warwick, near the border with East Greenwich.
Two Democratic state lawmakers from East Greenwich – Senator Bridget Valverde and Representative Justine Caldwell – have introduced legislation that would prevent the state from issuing permits or licenses for any new “high-heat waste processing facility.”
On Thursday, Valverde said she knows of no other facility now operating in the United States that uses pyrolysis on mixed medical waste. “Rhode Islanders, and my constituents, are not interested in being guinea pigs for this kind of technology,” she said. And she’s concerned that there is a daycare center adjacent to the business park.
Valverde noted the General Assembly just passed the Act on Climate bill, which makes the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals mandatory and enforceable.
“We have now declared as a state that we want to be on a path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, and bringing a facility like this into the state would be a huge setback,” she said.
Budris said that legislation would apply to future proposals and would not stop the MedRecycler proposal, which has already entered the licensing process. But, he said, “These bills are vital to ensure that Rhode Island does not become the destination in the Northeast for burning medical waste or plastic or solid waste. There’s more at stake here than one facility.”