Proposed Medical Waste Facility has Neighbors on Edge
Inconsistencies in applications for the West Warwick waste-to-energy plant leave two communities worried about unproven technology and how the operation will impact the area
February 17, 2021
An untested waste-to-energy facility that received support from influential Rhode Island officials is being assembled in an office park on the border of West Warwick and East Greenwich. But critics aim to halt a key permit from being issued.
The machinery, in a large commercial building at 1600 Division Road in West Warwick, that grinds and melts medical waste, including body parts, is waiting for local, state, and federal approvals. Office space has been built and the project has already received some approvals from the town of West Warwick and the state, including an air pollution permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). But a pending license, also from DEM, is being contested.
In recent online meetings, neighbors fearing adverse impacts to nearby schools, homes, and restaurants, raised questions about toxic emissions, noise, and the dangers of disintegrating up to 70 tons of medical waste daily through an energy-intensive heating process known as pyrolysis.
Inconsistencies about the project have confounded neighbors, such as assertions by the developer, MedRecycler-RI Inc., that no trucks will be stored on-site and that four to eight truckloads of waste daily will visit the facility. But paperwork filed with the state asks for 10 deliveries a day and up to 25 truckloads of waste could be stored at the facility.
“The more you look at the application, the more it doesn’t make sense,” said Denise Lopez, an East Greenwich resident who lives near the building and the creator of a petition against the project that has more than 2,000 signatures.
There is only one known facility that uses intense heat, up to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, to disintegrate medical waste. A similar system in Santa Fe, N.M., treats medical waste with proprietary equipment. The system began operating in 2017 and processes a much smaller volume of waste than the West Warwick operation intends to.
The system to be used in West Warwick is manufactured by Technotherm of South Africa. The company has only three other pyrolysis systems around the world and none are used exclusively to process medical waste. A facility in Schenectady, N.Y., that processes sludge is expected to begin operations later this year.
MedRecycler-RI claims the process has been around for some 40 years. It has been promoting pyrolysis as a form of renewable energy.
“This is the answer for medical waste. No emissions, preserving the landfill space and getting rid of what would otherwise be contaminated waste,” said Richard Bingham, head engineer and owner of Technotherm and an employee of MedRecycler-RI.
The South Africa-based manufacturer is looking for a toehold in the United States by partnering with MedRecycler-RI and its parent company Sun Pacific Holding Corp LLC.
“Sun Pacific’s medical waste-to-energy opportunity in Rhode Island is the company’s first response in targeting a global medical waste marketplace that is expected to reach $33.4 billion by 2025. Sun Pacific’s goal is to target and build out other strategic medical waste to energy opportunities in North America in support of its high efficiency gasification technologies,” according to a 2018 press release from the New Jersey-based company.
Sun Pacific Holding has three operations: MedRecycler-RI, a solar assembly business, and a bus stop advertising service called Street Smart Outdoors, which manages bus shelter advertising for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
Question of renewability
In applications and presentations to town and state officials, MedRecycler-RI promotes its project as a waste-to-energy and a gasification renewable-energy system. But state definitions of renewable energy specifically exclude waste-to-energy combustion of “any sort or manner.” And the electricity it creates doesn’t qualify for renewable-energy incentives offered by the state and National Grid.
Nevertheless, the West Warwick Planning Board and town manager gave their initial approval in 2019 based on the project’s renewable merits, classifying the zoning approval as a “green project.”
“The town is in support of this development as it will result in an additional renewable energy resource as well as create new jobs and new revenue for the town,” then-town manager Ernest Zmyslinski wrote in a Feb. 11, 2019 letter to MedRecycler-RI.
The Rhode Island Industrial Facilities Corporation (RIIFC), a part of Rhode Island Commerce, gave conditional approval for a $17.2 million bond offering for the company based on “medical waste to renewable energy operations.”
The project has been advanced by William Ash, managing director of financial services for Rhode Island Commerce. Ash received confirmation from Meredith Brady, associate director of the Division of Statewide Planning, that the State Planning Council found that the project fits within the state guide plan.
The bond deal still requires approval by the Rhode Island Public Finance Management Board and an approval letter from the governor.
MedRecycler-RI CEO Nicholas Campanella, who also runs Sun Pacific Holding, insists that the process isn’t incineration because pyrolysis doesn’t burn the waste. Instead, the energy-intensive practice uses scorching temperatures to convert the material into synthesis gas (syngas) and a tar that is used as heating fuel for the system. He said the ash byproduct can be landfilled or can be used as an additive for making concrete and asphalt.
“It’s not burned or incinerated, it’s just converted through a process we have here,” Campanella said during a Jan. 25 DEM hearing for the medical waste facility license.
Local waste-to-energy proposals have been vehemently opposed by the environmental community. The pushback has defeated proposals in recent years, such as biomass energy facility in Johnston.
The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has highlighted a significant distinction about pyrolysis. While MedRecycler-RI claims that nothing is burned during pyrolysis and therefore the operation isn’t an incinerator, CLF has noted that medical waste is typically about 25 percent plastic and that the subsequent burning of syngas releases dioxins, mercury, lead, and nitric oxides — the same pollutants released from burning waste at traditional incinerators.
“What comes out of the system is often highly toxic,” CLF staff attorney Kevin Budris said. “You can’t just rebrand incineration and say it doesn’t have the same problems.”
Campanella said his system can produce up to 2.8 megawatts of “clean energy” using four pyrolysis machines that create syngas to power three generators. He claimed that the facility’s emissions would be equivalent to four cars annually. However, CLF noted that in the application before DEM it shows that the system would emit 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equal to 4,118 cars every year.
Another reason not to classify the operation as renewable, Budris said, is because the facility may use more energy than it generates from the syngas. He noted that it’s unclear from the application how dependent the system will be on natural gas to power its heating apparatus.
“It’s CLF’s position that this is not renewable energy by any sense of the definition,” Budris said. “They are taking that waste, turning it into fuel, and burning it.”
There are other inconsistencies. In MedRecycler-RI’s application for bonding to the RIIFC, Campanella said no discharge will be sent to the sewer system. But another MedRecycler-RI form before the RIIFC said it expects to release 2,000 gallons daily into the system. A question about whether the facility will emit air pollution is blank.
Some neighbors and elected officials are enraged that a largely unproven technology is being allowed to advance.
East Greenwich is challenging DEM’s air pollution permit in Rhode Island Superior Court. The town hired an engineering firm to study potential emissions, as actual emissions can’t be studied because there is no model of the system to test.
East Greenwich town solicitor Andrew Teitz argued that there should have been public vetting before the minor-source air pollution permit was issued.
“We understand DEM has a different view, and we’ve taken it to court, and we are in mediation,” Teitz said during last month’s DEM hearing. “We don’t believe they have the right to do it without the public process.”
Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich, lives near the proposed MedRecycler-RI site. The waste facility dominates daily discussions with her constituents. “There is a huge amount of concern in our community,” she said.
Their primary criticism, she said, is the use of fledgling technology to break down an array of medical waste, including pathogens. The refuse allows for so-called “red bag” biohazard waste that contains infectious waste, blood products, IV tubing, cultures, trace chemicals, contaminated gloves, and personal protective equipment.
“This is a very new and very untested technology,” Caldwell said. “I have no idea why DEM would even think of approving a facility like this.”
The medical waste wouldn’t be opened or inspected before processing, so there are worries that harmful waste could have dangerous consequences. Other pyrolysis systems process a single type of waste, such as sludge, but medical waste has a mix of plastics, metals, liquids, and bacterium.
“If you don’t spot check them you have no idea what is in there,” Caldwell said.
Campanella noted that scrubbers would be installed to stop harmful emissions. But neighbors worry that the mix of waste means it could be more difficult to calibrate emission controls. And without independent testing of the equipment here or elsewhere, they say there is no evidence that this system can effectively control emissions.
There are also questions about notification if dangerous emissions are released. At the Jan. 25 hearing, Mark Dennen, supervising environmental scientist for DEM’s medical and infectious waste program, said any notices of dangerous emissions to the public would be voluntary by MedRecycler-RI. And that due to understaffing, DEM inspections would be sporadic.
His honest admission about a lack of oversight is no comfort to the community.
“No one at this facility would be inspecting deliveries to see just what is being sent to ensure it’s not radioactive or otherwise harmful,” Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-East Greenwich, wrote in a press release. “This is not the kind of development Rhode Island should be seeking, and the people of our area are not interested in being guinea pigs for this technology.”
In the Feb. 2 joint statement, Caldwell and Valverde say the facility endangers a nearby child-care center and the New England Institute of Technology, which has joined the town of East Greenwich in opposing the air permit in court.
Trucks bringing medical waste from across New England and New York to the neighborhood increase the potential for accidents, according to the lawmakers. They are also concerned about “the questionable material being brought into the area without anyone on the receiving end ensuring that it is safe and that its contents are what it purports to be.”
“It is unconscionable that our town leaders would have no standing in this matter when the abutting properties are in East Greenwich,” according to Caldwell. “East Greenwich’s very valid concerns demand consideration during this permitting process.”
Tracie Kosakowski, an East Greenwich resident, said waste was inspected during her former job as a production chemist for a waste facility in Warwick. She argued that technologies like pyrosis should be tried, but in wide-open industrial areas like the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown, where harmful emissions can dissipate. She said this experiment shouldn’t happen in a neighborhood with homes, schools, and restaurants.
“It’s unproven and untested, so you do it in the middle of nowhere,” Kosakowski said.
Campanella insisted that licensed haulers are required to bring appropriate medical waste, “so there’s no surprises in there.”
East Greenwich Town Council vice president Michael Donegan, who is an environmental attorney, noted that having acceptable waste all the time “just isn’t true all the time and it can’t be.”
While the air permit is being contested, DEM has said independent testing will be required to determine if harmful emissions can be released during the shredding of the waste.
Noise is also an issue. Three generators that run on syngas are already at the site. They are expected to run nonstop and generate a noise level of 85 decibels, or about the same level as a domestic gas generator or leaf blower.
Campanella said the noise is negligible compared to the noise from local traffic and nearby Interstate 95. He stresses that MedRecycler-RI is addressing the mounting problem of medical waste. In Rhode Island, medical waste is currently sterilized through autoclaves at Rhode Island Hospital and a facility run by Stericycle in Woonsocket. It is then shipped out of state to facilities licensed to manage medical waste.
MedRecycler-RI had support from Rhode Island House speaker Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, who represented the project at a West Warwick meeting and helped find a home for the facility. At the time Shekarchi was second in command of House leadership. He told ecoRI News at the time to make a distinction between his work as a legislator and an attorney. He ceased working with MedRecyler-RI in 2019. At a January 2020 Statehouse event, he made a public plea for waste-to-energy facilities.
Terry Gray, a member of DEM’s upper management, attended a meeting with Campanella and Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena in 2018, when the town was considering sites for a waste gasification facility near Shun Pike. Campanella said a building at 1 Industrial Lane was considered until the landlord increased the rent to an unacceptable cost.
West Warwick still has a number of approvals and reviews before the project is authorized. State, federal, and regulatory permits are needed before the preliminary plan review can be conducted by the West Warwick Planning Board. Any restrictions, stipulations, and conditions that may be placed on the project by the Planning Board must be satisfied before a final review is done.
MedRecycler-RI must also meet with West Warwick public safety officials to develop a locally approved emergency response plan.
A DEM public comment meeting is scheduled for March 15 at 4 p.m. on Zoom. The event is a listening session and questions will not be answered. Written comments can be submitted until April 14 to Yan Li at yan.Li@dem.ri.gov.
DEM’s final decision on the permit will be made by director Janet Coit within 90 days of the close of the public comment period.