Dubious Claims Swirl Around Medical Waste Facility
Legislation introduced that would ban waste-to-energy projects like the one proposed for West Warwick
March 1, 2021
Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich, recently introduced a bill (H5923) that prohibits “new high-heat waste processing facilities” in Rhode Island, such as the pyrolysis facility proposed for West Warwick.
The legislation outlaws gasification, plasma torch, and chemical recycling as “costly and unproven methods of waste disposal.” According to the bill, these processes contribute to global warming and emit the same pollutants as traditional incineration, which produces “unacceptable threats to health, safety, and the environment.”
The bill prohibits classifying as renewable energy any electricity created from burning waste or any byproducts. The bill is headed to the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. No hearing date has yet been scheduled.
Rhode Island officials spread misinformation
Nicholas Campanella, CEO of MedRecycler-RI Inc., has used the terms “renewable” and “clean energy” to describe the burning of a synthetic gas (syngas) byproduct to power generators that would feed into the electric grid. The language was also used by the West Warwick Planning Board, Rhode Island Commerce, and the Division of Statewide Planning in their paperwork to advance the untested waste-to-energy facility proposed for an office park on the border of West Warwick and East Greenwich.
Had these government entities verified Campanella’s claims, they would have learned that the state doesn’t classify gas from processing unsorted solid waste as renewable.
The Division of Statewide Planning referenced renewable energy in its communication seeking a review of the project by the State Planning Council.
“The gasification process converts medical waste to renewable energy electricity. The process will have no impact on air quality,” Meredith Brady, head of the Division of Statewide Planning, wrote in a Nov. 1, 2019 letter asking members of the State Planning Council if the proposed medical waste facility conforms with the State Guide Plan.
When no objections were voiced, Brady repeated the comment about renewable energy and air pollution in a Nov. 21 finding of conformity to the State Planning Council. The assent moved MedRecycler-RI closer to a crucial $17.2 million bond deal put together by Rhode Island Commerce.
Brady clarified later that it wasn’t claims about renewable energy that aligned the project with the State Guide Plan but the fact that the facility was being built in an existing building, a point not mentioned in the consent letter or in communications to the State Planning Council.
When asked how she verified claims about the project, Brady said, “our review was based on the information presented by the applicant, which was provided to us in late 2019.”
The project’s bond deal, pushed by the Rhode Industrial Facilities Corporation (RIIFC), a subset of Rhode Island Commerce, hasn’t been given the final go-ahead.
The RIIFC members approved the issuance of $17.2 million tax-free and taxable state bonds in 2019. The maximum allowed by RIIFC is $20 million. Construction costs may also be exempt from sales tax. The state makes an indirect investment in the project because of the revenue loss of issuing tax-exempt bonds.
Approval letters are still needed from Gov. Gina Raimondo, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and the Rhode Island Public Finance Management Board (PFMB), a nine-member board chaired by Treasurer Seth Magaziner. In early November 2019, the PFMB approved the bond deal unanimously after a 14-minute review.
The agreement also requires outside financing and regulatory approvals.
“This has not occurred, and as a result no approval letter for tax-exempt status was sent, and the 2019 decision of the PFMB has expired,” said Patricia Socarras, spokesperson for the general treasurer’s office.
The 2019 PFMB vote shouldn’t be viewed as a statement by the board on the merits of the project, as the only role of the PFMB is to determine the appropriate tax status for the bonds, according to Socarras.
“The Department of Environmental Management, not the PFMB, is tasked with determining the environmental suitability of the project,” she said.
A recording of the Nov. 7, 2019 approval by PFMB reveals some insights and misconceptions about the project. Willam Ash, managing director of financial services at Rhode Island Commerce, guided the bond approval process for MedRecycler-RI. Despite no evidence that the energy the waste facility would produce is renewable, at least by state standards, he described the request for tax-free bonds to the board as “a medical waste disposal facility that will also generate renewable energy.”
When the issue of natural-gas use was raised, Campanella said the fossil fuel is used to raise the heat of the pyrolysis system to 1,479 degrees Fahrenheit. He didn’t mention that natural gas will be used during ongoing operations. Although stated in his application to DEM, Campanella didn’t mention to the PFMB that natural gas may be called on to dry the waste and used in other operations where syngas is inadequate.
“We use natural gas to start the combustion but once it’s started, it’s an ongoing process, so the facility [is] going to be operating 24/7, cause if we do shut down we have a four-hour lead time to start up again,” Campanella said. “But the syngas is captured to our generators and we have more than enough power to run the facility with that.”
He also claimed that the 5 tons or so of daily slag/ash byproduct created by the pyrolysis process will be sold to asphalt and concrete companies as a binding agent, but no agreements exist and getting them requires several approvals.
“This is the best way to use this type of product instead of ending up in a landfill or incineration,” Campanella said.
When asked if there are existing facilities like the one proposed for Division Road in West Warwick, he failed to mention that there are none in the United States currently operating that exclusively treat medical waste with pyrolysis, which is traditionally used to break down biomass. A similar system in Santa Fe, N.M., began operating in 2017 but processes a much smaller volume of medical waste than MedRecycler-RI intends to, and by all accounts isn’t currently accepting waste.
“No, not pyrolysis in the area,” he said. “In Rhode Island, pretty much the Northeast, will be the focal point and the showcase for this technology.”
He implied that the cost has held back broader use of pyrolysis on medical waste, not the efficacy of the technology and pollution control that skeptics argue has limited its use.
“No, pyrolysis has been around for over 30 years,” Campanella said during the November 2019 PFMB meeting. “Basically, a lot of facilities were using it in Europe and overseas. It’s a very expensive technology to use, but because of the type of tipping fees that we’re charging based on the products that we’re taking, which is medical waste, it’s at a higher level so it offsets the cost. If we just doing regular municipal waste it wouldn’t be cost-effective for us to operate that facility with that. … This is very expensive technology, very expensive equipment. Hopefully, after there’s more production and more being built of this type of product hopefully it will reduce the cost of this type of equipment.”
When asked about carbon dioxide emissions, Campanella claimed that his system emits the equivalent of two cars per year. Yet, the application before DEM indicates that the proposed facility would emit 20,881 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 4,118 cars annually.
“We have a flame that shoots off when the combustion exceeds, but we are probably much not going to do that. We kick off the same CO2 that two cars produce on an annual basis. So it’s a very very low.”
“An annual basis?” one committee member asked.
“Amazing,” said another.
When asked about licenses and technical experience of his staff to operate this new, expensive equipment, Campanella said, “I’ve been doing this now for two years and all of our affiliates, all of our technicians have been doing this for 20 years and 30 years. As far as ensuring feedstock, we have companies, Stericycle, which is actually in Woonsocket, where they’re processing medical waste here. They’re also autoclaving it. They’re not disposing it.”
Regarding staff, he added, “We have the team in place. We have the technical staff to operate it. What we’ll do is the manufacturer is coming here, they are also going to be training people to operate the facility cause any type of product you develop where you bring it to a community you still need to train someone how to operate it whether it’s a car manufacturing plant or pyrolysis facility.”
When asked about community response and permits, he said of DEM, “We’ve been told that everything is moving forward. They love the technology. They like the fact that we are creating green and clean energy and being able to dispose of products instead of going into a landfill.”
DEM denies that it made such an endorsement.
“No one at DEM has ever expressed, to the applicant or to any party to this proceeding, any opinion about this project,” DEM spokesperson Michael Healey said. “By law and regulation, our role is to make a factual review of the application and decide whether the proposal would meet the requirements of the regulations or not, and it’s subject to the public weighing in.”
Campanella concluded his comments to PFMB by saying that he would be receiving his first generator by the end of the month, November 2019. He said testing would begin in March 2020 “and then full speed ahead as of April.”
Raimondo’s office didn’t respond to an inquiry about the letter she has been asked to issue.
Division of Statewide Planning’s Brady, Rhode Island Commerce, their information officers, and MedRecycler-RI have been selective about how and when they respond to inquires about approvals and how this facility is being funded. Responses take a week or longer, if they come at all.
Documents received from records requests reveal that Rhode Island Commerce takes ownership of the MedRecycler-RI facility and equipment if the bonds default.
Unanswered is why claims of renewable energy and no pollution were hyped and why Rhode Island Commerce’s Ash was seeking bond approval for the project. Many of the discussions for the bond deal by Rhode Island Commerce were held in executive session.
DEM has already approved an air pollution permit. The review process is being contested by the town of East Greenwich and the New England Institute of Technology, which has a campus next to the proposed MedRecycer-RI location on Division Road.
DEM issued a notice of intent to approve a medical waste license Jan. 11. The vetting doesn’t address misrepresentations and irregularities in the applications and statements made by Campanella. DEM isn’t concerned if 50 trucks arrive each day or five, or if the facility operates 24 hours a day.
“Although it is possible that the applicant made a representation about numbers of truckloads to the Town (of West Warwick) at a meeting that DEM neither attended nor was invited to, to be clear, it was not included in the application and DEM did not evaluate or assess it,” Mark Dennen, supervising environmental scientist for DEM’s Office of Waste Management, wrote in an email to ecoRI News. “The applicant is seeking a permit for 70 tons a day and this is what we are evaluating.”
Dennen noted the difference between medical waste, also referred to as biohazard, and hazardous waste. Medical waste includes cultures and stocks, pathological waste, anatomical waste, human waste, blood and blood products, syringes and sharps, animal waste, chemical waste, incinerate-only waste, spill cleanup materials, and drugs.
Hazardous waste, which isn’t permitted at the MedRecycler-RI facility, is defined as material that “may cause or significantly contribute to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible or incapacitating reversible illness; or pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment.”
According to Dennen, the 5 tons daily of solid waste is regulated, meaning that if an asphalt or concrete company wants the byproduct, it would have to obtain beneficial-use determination from DEM.
Emails sent to DEM ahead of a Jan. 25 hearing and one scheduled for March 15 convey outrage that an unproven technology will process medical waste close to homes, schools, and businesses.
“As a physician, I can’t emphasize enough the potential dangers to the health of our young children this type of plant poses to the surrounding neighborhoods,” wrote Liudvikas Jagminas, chief of emergency medicine at South County Hospital in Wakefield, who lives about a mile from the proposed facility.
“No one truly knows how this system works or its effects on the environment and its result on human life,” wrote Tara Buontempo, a resident of the Signal Ridge neighborhood in East Greenwich. “I brought my children to this neighborhood to give them a beautiful place to live, not to be exposed to this experimental project.”
Editor’s note: This report was updated March 2.