Environment

Local groups lead charge against medical waste to energy facilities in Rhode Island

“I think that people are becoming aware that these kinds of facilities are not green,” said Catherine Costantino. “They aren’t coming here and saving us by giving us all these jobs. In the long run, we have to weigh the cost benefit ratio here, and the cost could be insanely detrimental to the state. I think the legislators are starting to realize that.”
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Published on March 8, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Two resident groups have formed and teamed up to prevent MedRecycler, a New Jersey-based company, from building and running a facility at 1600 Division Road in West Warwick, Rhode Island that will burn 70 tons of medical waste per day using a  process called pyrolysis. About a dozen members of the Keep Kent County Beautiful and West Warwick & East Greenwich, Safe & Healthy Community groups gathered at the four corners of Route 2 and Division Road holding signs that read, “NO MEDICAL WASTE FACILITY.”

“It’s a demonstration on behalf of everyone in Kent County,” said organizer Denise Lopez, a resident of East Greenwich. “To get the awareness out about the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) meeting that’s coming up on March 15th at four o’clock. The public needs to be informed about the medical waste facility that’s being proposed – and the time to speak up is now. DEM said, in other documentation, that [the facility relies on] untested technology and [DEM doesn’t] know how to test it yet. It could have an environmental as well as a health impact. It’s very important for the public to take a look and to provide DEM with their comments before the March 15th meeting, or actually come to the March 15th meeting at four o’clock and expressed her concerns.”

MedRecycler plans to burn 70 tons of medical waste per day using a  process called pyrolysis. According to a fact sheet from CLF, “this is equal to about 10 truckloads of medical waste per day: most of it from out of state. The medical waste burned by MedRecycler will include pathological wastes, sharps, blood, and body fluids. In general, medical waste is about 25% plastic.”

DEM has already granted MedRecycler a “minor source permit” for the air emissions from its waste-burning process. Amazingly, public comment was not accepted during that permitting process.

DEM is now considering MedRecycler’s application for a medical waste treatment permit. There are two important upcoming steps in the application process: 

  • March 15, 2021 at 4:00pm: DEM will hold a public Zoom hearing on the treatment  facility permit application. All members of the public may testify at the hearing.
    • Attend by phone at: 1-929-205-6099 
  • April 14, 2021: deadline for written comments on the application (send to  yan.li@dem.ri.gov).

“I’m all for industry in Rhode Island, but we want sustainable industry and these [pyrolysis facilities] don’t normally stay up very long,” said Lopez, who runs the Keep Kent County Beautiful page..

UpriseRI asked Lopez about the support she’s received from state legislators in opposing the facility. Local Senators Bridget Valverde and John Burke and Representatives Justine Caldwell and Patricia Serpa have all expressed opposition.

“They’re coming to us, they’re looking out for their communities,” said Lopez. “It’s an important issue that’s out there.”

UpriseRI asked Catherine Costantino, another organizer who runs the West Warwick & East Greenwich, Safe & Healthy Community group, if she worries that powerful state level politicians, such as Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi, will use his influence to push the project through over community objections. Shekarchi was the attorney for MedRecycler when the company appeared before the West Warwick Town Council.

“I’m less concerned now,” said Costantino. “Shekarchi definitely seems to have stepped away from this to some extent, which is great… I think that people are becoming aware that these kinds of facilities are not green. They aren’t coming here and saving us by giving us all these jobs. In the long run, we have to weigh the cost benefit ratio here, and the cost could be insanely detrimental to the state. I think the legislators are starting to realize that.

“I think the ones that were really involved have sort of stepped back because they’ve realized their friends in the legislature aren’t supporting it,” continued Costantino. “They’ve realized, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not going to get the support I thought, why put my energy here? I’ve got lots of other places to put my energy.’ And on top of that, I think they’re starting to get educated and realize what they were potentially supporting isn’t quite as clear and defined as they thought it was. It’s not quite as green as they originally thought it was as well. So no, I’m not concerned.”

CLF has put out a fact sheet on pyrolysis and Medrecycler’s proposed facility:

“The pyrolysis process proposed by MedRecycler is the equivalent of waste incineration split into  two parts. First, MedRecycler plans to shred medical waste, dry the waste, then heat it to more  than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit in the absence of oxygen. This process will generate gaseous  hydrocarbons (or “syngas”), tars and oils, and solid residue like ash and slag—all of which  contain toxic and climate-damaging pollutants. Second, MedRecycler plans to burn both the  syngas and the tars and oils onsite in West Warwick.
“Waste pyrolysis generates the same pollutants—like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, heavy  metals, and persistent organic pollutants—and poses the same risks as traditional waste  incineration. Burning syngas derived from plastics and other medical waste releases carbon dioxide along with high concentrations of dangerous toxics like lead, mercury, and dioxins.
“MedRecycler’s plan to “convert” medical waste to fuel will require a significant amount of  external energy—high-heat technologies like pyrolysis generally use between 5 and 87 times as  much energy as can be obtained from burning the resulting syngas. To provide this external  energy, MedRecycler plans to burn fracked gas to heat its pyrolysis chamber.”

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“Just learn a little bit about it,” said Catherine Costantino. “Go into the details, dig a little and try and figure out why we are concerned. We’re not a bunch of moms here with a lot of time – I work full time. We’re not a bunch of moms who are worried about something that’s not problematic. This is a real concern. I don’t live anywhere near this thing and I’m still concerned for my neighbors in West Warwick, where my husband grew up and in the neighboring community of East Greenwich. We need people to get involved. We need people, if nothing else, to just learn about it.”

“When you present it at a high level, it sounds like utopian technology,” said Denise Lopez. “I would love something like this, but I don’t think this is the way to do it. I don’t want it in this location. I don’t want it anywhere in Rhode Island, but time will tell.”

Make Your Voice Heard 

DEM will hold a public hearing via Zoom on MedRecycler’s application for a medical waste  treatment facility permit on March 15, 2021 at 4:00pm. Use the following Zoom link: 

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/5211383116, Meeting ID: 521 138 3116 

Or by phone at: 1-929-205-6099 

Written comments on MedRecycler’s medical waste treatment permit application must be  submitted to Yan Li at yan.li@dem.ri.gov by April 14, 2021.

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