RI regulators say no to medical waste burning plant
WEST WARWICK — Citing a just-passed state law as well as deficiencies in the proposal itself, environmental regulators have rejected an application for a medical waste-to-energy plant on the East Greenwich town line that was widely opposed by neighbors, elected officials and environmental advocates.
In a decision released Tuesday, the Department of Environmental Management ruled that MedRecycler-RI’s proposal for a facility that would be the only one of its kind in the nation could not go forward in part because of a bill signed into law on Friday by Gov. Dan McKee that effectively bans high-heat medical waste processing facilities in Rhode Island.
The bill, written to stop the West Warwick project, was introduced in February, six months after MedRecycler submitted its final application to the DEM and a month after the agency opened its review period. Although the company has insisted that the law does not apply to its proposal – because it was already well into the permitting process – the DEM, in the decision signed by acting director Terrance Gray, said it believes otherwise.
Moreover, regardless of the new law, the DEM said that the application could not be approved because of inconsistencies and ambiguities. They included a lack of testing protocols to show that MedRecycler’s technology could actually work as proposed and incomplete emergency response plans.
MedRecycler, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Sun Pacific Holding Corp., has already started construction on the facility in a business park off Division Road. The company wants to use a high-heat process known as pyrolysis to break down used gloves, tubing and syringes into flammable gas and tar that could then be burned to generate power. Although a facility in New Mexico was, for a time, using pyrolysis to process medical waste, it’s believed to have closed down.
MedRecyler maintains that the plant’s use of pyrolysis – which is different from combustion because it breaks down materials in the absence of oxygen and technically doesn’t burn anything – would be safe. The company argues that the facility would advance the state’s environmental goals by diverting waste from the Central Landfill in Johnston, which is nearing capacity, and by generating what it describes as renewable energy.
But opponents say that efforts are already underway in the state to recycle some plastic medical waste and argue that processing trash using pyrolysis does not meet the definition of renewable energy. They worry about noise, odors and airborne contaminants associated with the proposal to process up to 70 tons of garbage a day.
Lawyers for the Town of East Greenwich and abutters complained that the application was incomplete because it lacked a required approval from the State Planning Council and a final approval from the West Warwick Planning Board.
In April, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha called on the DEM to suspend the approval process until MedRecycler’s plans were proven safe to the environment and public health, and the company secured all necessary certifications.
The effort by Rep. Justine Caldwell and Sen. Bridget Valverde to legislate against the project and any like it gained traction in the final days of the General Assembly session. Shortly before adjourning July 1, both chambers approved the bill.
According to the law, no permit or license shall be issued for a high-heat medical waste processing facility and “no application for a permit or license for such a facility shall be granted by the state” if the facility is: within 2,000 feet of any waters, open space or parks, floodplains, schools or residential areas, or within any city or town with an environmental justice zone as defined by the DEM, a list that includes West Warwick among many other communities.
After the bill’s passage, a lawyer for MedRecycler argued that the company’s project would be exempt because there was no retroactivity clause in the measure.
But the DEM says the law’s language against granting a license is clear. The MedRecycler proposal is subject to the restrictions in a number of ways, according to the state agency. The project site is located within 560 feet of a stream and 300 feet of a floodplain. It sits across the street from a public golf course and is close to neighborhoods, the New England Institute of Technology and a public elementary school.