Proposed West Warwick Medical-Waste Processing Plant Would Serve New England
February 24, 2020
WEST WARWICK, R.I. — A relatively untested technology that cooks medical waste to generate electricity is proposed for a local office and warehouse building.
MedRecycler-RI Inc., a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Sun Pacific Holdings, is touting a system that uses extreme heat to disintegrate medical waste, including blood and prescription drugs, as “strictly green and clean.”
The proposed facility at 1600 Division Road plans to process some 70 tons of medical waste, from hospitals, laboratories, and doctors offices from across New England, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The shipments of medical waste won’t be opened when they arrive by tractor trailer, but they are inspected for radioactive content before they are shredded and exposed to intense heat. The thermal decomposition process, known as pyrolysis, converts the waste to an oil and tar byproduct and a synthesis gas (syngas) that is used as fuel to create electricity.
Pyrolysis is common in the chemical industry to produce fossil-fuel byproducts, but there are few examples of its commercial use to process waste.
Nicholas Campanella, CEO of MedRecycler-RI, claims that the equipment releases little to no emissions and works as a closed-loop “green” system.
“It stays within the system and cleans everything,” Campanella recently told ecoRI News.
Along with the oil and tar, the apparatus produces steam, a glass-like slag, and an ash that can be landfilled or used in the production of cement. The building will have a vent stack for ancillary emissions, thereby requiring an air pollution permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
The facility expects to process a significant amount of plastics and other inorganic compounds, so DEM is requiring testing of the equipment to determine the volume and type of byproducts and to make sure all bacteria is destroyed. DEM is trying to decide how the testing will be performed without installing the pyrosis system.
“I don’t know of any (pyrolysis system) like this. That’s what makes it challenging,” said Mark Denning, DEM’s supervising environmental scientist.
A public hearing and public comment period for the proposed project is expected. Public input will focus on the location of the facility, not the technology itself.
If approved as a medical-waste processor by DEM and the state Department of Health, the pyrolysis system would be allowed to accept anatomical waste, animal waste, contaminated animal carcasses, body parts and bedding, cultures and stocks, human blood and blood products, pathological waste, prescription drugs, spill cleanup material mixtures, and syringes and other medical “sharps.” It also may receive isolation waste, which is the material generated by patients that are isolated to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
However, Campanella said he will not take in anatomical waste, animal waste, hazardous waste, isolation waste, pathological waste, radioactive waste, or empty chemotherapeutic/cytotoxic waste.
The medical refuse arrives by truck from independent shippers in cardboard boxes and plastic containers. Up to 25 trucks containing medical waste will be stored onsite for up to two weeks, according to Campanella.
The two pyrolysis machines plan to run 24 hours a day to maintain a heat of about 1,652 degrees. Stopping and starting the system is avoided because it takes four hours of natural gas-fueled heating to reach the desired operating temperature. Fueled by the syngas, six generators with a capacity of 1.4 megawatts of electricity will offset electricity use in the building. The remainder of the power will be sold to the regional electric grid.
Many of the project’s details weren’t discussed at a May 6, 2019 hearing before the Planning Board (the application starts at 1:09 mark). Campanella and his attorney, K. Joseph Shekarchi, focused on the cleanliness and green elements of the process.
“It’s a green project. This is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Shekarchi, who is also a Democratic state representative serving Warwick.
When asked by Planning Board chairman Joseph DiMartino, “You are not going to be the first that can do this?”
Campanella replied, “No. No, we’re not,” noting that the technology isn’t new.
However, the device, manufactured by Technotherm Inc. of South Africa, is the first of its kind to process medical waste. The company has only three gasification devices in operation. Two are in South Africa — one serves a slaughterhouse and the other processes plastic waste. A third facility in the United Kingdom burns wood. A Technotherm Inc. device is being considered for a sludge waste-to-energy plant in Schenectady, N.Y.
DEM is unaware of a commercial medical-waste pyrolysis facility in the Northeast or elsewhere in the country.
At last year’s Planning Board meeting a few abutters to the facility from East Greenwich expressed concern about increased truck traffic and air pollution.
Campanella noted that between three and five trucks would make deliveries daily. The application submitted to the state said 10 trucks would make deliveries daily.
Philip Marx, an attorney representing the New England Institute of Technology, which is an abutter, told the Planning Board that the operation was difficult to understand.
“We have 400 kids living on campus,” Marx said. “We have to make sure the environment is safe.”
Shekarchi replied, “They are not going to do anything that’s going to expose them or anyone else to any kind of harm.”
According to the application, both the facility and the trailers parked there may emit offensive odors but that efforts would be taken to preempt and eliminate them, such as sending offensive trailers back to their source.
Despite claims of low health risks, local environmentalists have aggressively fought waste-to-energy facilities, such as incinerators or gasification plants. In 2018, a large coalition of opponents defeated a biomass incinerator proposed for Johnston. Last year, they killed a bill that would have allowed the state to build a gasification plant in Johnston.
However, a Senate resolution to study gasification passed last year. The commission has yet to hold a meeting but one is expected soon, according to Statehouse officials.
Shekarchi, the House Majority Leader and next in line as Speaker of the House, raised eyebrows when he mentioned his support for medical waste-to-energy facilities during a legislative press event held last month by the Environment Council of Rhode Island at the Statehouse.
The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has noted that emissions from pyrolysis contain cancer-causing compounds. The ash consists of dioxins, mercury, and heavy metals — pollutants that can make their way into waterways and drinking water supplies. The applications submitted to DEM says the facility will emit or have as byproducts carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, silicon dioxide, magnesium oxide, iron oxide, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfide.
Campenella insisted that the total annual emissions would be equal to the emissions from two automobiles. He said he intends to have students and other members of the public visit the plant and see the highly efficient waste-disposal system operate.
“It’s proven technology, and it’s not like an incinerator,” Campanella said.
Studies question the efficiency of pyrolysis systems because of the excessive use of electricity needed to run them as compared to the amount of electricity they generate.
CLF has pointed to the financial risk associated with operating a pyrolysis plant. Challenges maintaining temperatures make the machinery prone to breakdowns and have forced several relatively new pyrolysis facilities to close in Europe and Australia, according to the organization.
“That’s part of the concern,” CLF staff attorney Kevin Budris said. “They are really untested technologies.”
Budris said he is also concerned about the storage of medical waste onsite, some of which my be radioactive and stored until the material decays to a safe level for gasification.
Although pyrolysis facilities are uncommon, there’s no law against building a privately run operation in Rhode Island.
The Planing Board approved the MedRecycler-RI project on May 15, 2019, which under town zoning regulations qualified as a “green, renewable or alternative energy installations and facilities.” If and when the DEM permits are issued, the application would then go before the planning board for a preliminary review with public hearing.
Campenella is CEO of both MedRecycler-RI and Sun Pacific Holdings, which appears to operate several start-up businesses. In an October 2019 press release, Sun Pacific said it raised $8.725 million for its MedRecycler-RI venture.
Campanella said at the May 6, 2019 Planning Board meeting that he was moving from New Jersey to West Warwick to operate the facility. Up to 10 employees will be hired to staff the operation, he said.
The 1600 Division Road office park is owned by Brookwood Financial Partners, based in Beverly, Mass. The 550,000-square-foot building previously housed a call center for the MetLife insurance company.
MedRecycler-RI would occupy 50,000 square feet. Future expansion of the business is a goal, Campanella said.
According to the application, the Rhode Island facility is a “flagship project” meant “as a springboard to quickly develop its business throughout USA.”