General Assembly Passes Bill with Strict Limitations in Rhode Island on High-Heat Medical Waste Facilities
July 2, 2021
PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly has passed a bill placing severe restrictions on facilities proposing to use high-heat technology for medical waste disposal, following a debate volleying between the measure’s specific location limitations and calls for a total state ban.
The House passed the High-Heat Medical Waste Facility Act (H5923 Substitute A) June 30 by a vote of 43-22, after discussion of whether numerous geographic limitations were enough to corral companies proposing to use an extreme-heat waste disposal technology called pyrolysis.
The Senate passed the House bill July 1 by a vote of 32-5. Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-North Kingstown, presented the legislation to the upper chamber, saying “these facilities do not belong in our state” and claiming the measure would essentially ban medical waste pyrolysis throughout Rhode Island.
Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, R-North Smithfield, said she planned to vote against the bill because of ambiguity she perceived in the language. In a complaint similar to her House colleagues, de la Cruz expressed concerns about Valverde’s assurance the bill “effectively” banned the facilities but did not “explicitly” prohibit them.
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed, ignored or vetoed.
Rhode Island is the only state currently considering medical waste disposal using pyrolysis, which heats biomass to thousands of degrees without oxygen, producing char, liquid or gas, including methane and carbon dioxide, in a process contributing to air pollution and possible groundwater contamination.
MedRecycler Inc. has sought approval for a medical waste incineration plant in West Warwick to dispose up to 70 tons of waste daily from Northeast states. It would be one of the world’s largest medical waste pyrolysis facilities.
While MedRecycler was not mentioned by name, the prospect of a medical pyrolysis facility operating in one of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities drove the discussion among lawmakers, with supporters of the licensing and permitting bill arguing for geographic boundaries and opponents calling for a full ban so companies could not identify remote areas outside the reach of the bill’s restrictions.
An original version of the bill constituted a complete ban on high-heat medical waste processing facilities. The amended bill debated in the House would require pyrolysis installations to remain specific distances from areas and buildings deemed at risk from the biomass process. The boundaries include 2,000 feet from water, open space, park or state management areas and 1 mile from K-12 schools, colleges, child-care centers, assisted-living facilities and all areas zoned residential. Such a facility would be banned from cities and towns on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) map of environmental justice municipalities, which include communities of color and low-income areas that historically have suffered the worst impacts of industrial development.
Rep. David Morales, D-Providence, said pyrolysis facilities are “incredibly harmful and dangerous to our public health and further contribute to the issue of climate change” by producing oil, tar byproducts and toxic pollutants such as lead and mercury. He said the waste-processing industry is underwritten by “out-of-state, private investors who are looking to make a quick profit at the expense of our health and our standard of living.”
The debate was fierce at times, with some legislators not only expressing not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) concerns, but stating outright they did not want medical waste disposal “in my backyard.” While agreeing the facilities had no place in any of their communities, lawmakers wrangled over whether the bill’s language would allow someone’s yard to inadvertently become a future pyrolysis site.
Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, asked fellow lawmakers to help prevent a high-heat facility from being built in a small industrial park among the homes of her community.
“Guess where one of these facilities is proposed,” Serpa said. “In my neighborhood. Not five miles away, not out in the wilderness, in my neighborhood.”
Serpa said each day the facility would import 70 tons of waste normally processed at hospitals, including body parts and needles, and implored House members to consider whether they would want the same in their communities.
“Does it belong in my neighborhood? I don’t think so. Does it belong in any of your neighborhoods? I’m sure that if this was literally in your backyard, you would be begging us to pass this. I would be right there with you,” said Serpa, noting she does not have an alternative plan. “My constituents didn’t send me up here expecting me to be an environmentalist, expecting me to become a chemist overnight. I know one thing, though. They never sent me here expecting that I would deliberately put them in harm’s way and do nothing about it.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, R-Charlestown, and others said the spot-specific language in the amendment failed to define the exact parameters for restricted areas, with the oversight leaving the possibility of an unpleasant surprise for a legislator who may later learn his or her district provides the rare area in which high-heat facilities could legally operate.
“How did, when this was being drafted, we not put one of the hundreds of people that work in this building with a protractor and figure out where in this state this can go or not,” Filippi said. “I want to see a map, and I want to know whose district is subject to this.”
Rep. David Place, R-Burrillville, noted that without an outright prohibition on medical waste pyrolysis, the lawmakers were voting for the possibility of “dumping it on somebody else’s district.”
“I understand we’re trying to protect certain communities, but what about the rest of the communities that we are now opening up to this,” said Place, agreeing with Filippi that the bill’s language left some municipalities vulnerable. “If it’s this bad, we should just ban it. If we don’t ban it, that means someone else’s community is going to host this thing. Is it going to be yours?”
House Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, was joined by other supporters of the measure who said the restrictions essentially covered the entire state, while failing to pass the amended bill presented the possibility of ending the legislative session without any regulations on companies seeking to make Rhode Island a repository for the region’s medical waste.
Blazejewski said Rhode Island would have the first facility in the United States to use pyrolysis for disposal of organs and human waste and blood, along with products such as syringes infected with a host of illnesses including anthrax, botulism, Lyme disease, rabies and salmonella.
The bill would prevent a new technology from operating within proximity of the state’s waterways, flood zones and residents, while ensuring economic justice zone communities do not suffer further pollution, he said.
“A vote against this bill is saying that Rhode Island’s open for business for burning medical waste,” Blazejewski said. “A vote for this bill says that Rhode Island has made a strong statement that we’re not going to accept the waste of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut. The medical waste, the contaminated medical waste, from all across the Northeast, in Rhode Island.
“Someone said they don’t want it in your backyard. Well, this ensures it won’t be in your backyard, because voting for it means that it has to be a mile from any residential neighborhood. It will not be in your backyard.”
DEM’s decision regarding the MedRecycler facility proposed for 1600 Division Road in West Warwick is expected by July 13.