Keep it clean

A battle between a small community and medical-waste company goes to the wire

Photo By Mark Lore

It’s a brisk Sunday afternoon and by the time I turn on to Reading Road, just south of Red Bluff, there is already a small motorcade ahead of me. As I approach the line of cars, I can start to make out the words scrawled on homemade signs taped inside some of the windows: “Protect our Community,” “Keep InEnTec out of Tehama Co.” The cars halt in an awkward manner and the drivers thrust their heads out their car windows while a woman directs them to park along the shoulder. Soon about dozen people climb out of the cars carrying larger, more colorful signs: “¡Justicia Ambiental Ahora!,” “We don’t want your pollution.”

Leading the group is Lupe Green, who insists that this is only a handful of locals who are concerned about a medical-waste facility likely to be built about 20 feet away from where we’re standing.

Almost exactly one year ago, as the residents of Red Bluff hung lights and prepared for the annual Christmas parade through the historic downtown, county officials were quietly giving their stamp of approval to a massive project that would bring the waste-treatment plant to the town of 13,000.

In mid-December 2004, the Tehama County Planning Commission gave the go-ahead to Integrated Environmental Technologies (InEnTec) to build the facility, which could potentially process up to 20 tons of waste including syringes, body parts and fluids just south of the town that is probably best known for its annual rodeo.

Its presence would mark the first facility of its kind on the mainland United States, a fact that has caused the opposition to ask the county why an environmental impact report (EIR) wasn’t conducted and how it managed to slip the project through with virtually no public input.

Locals charge that InEnTec’s new plasma arc technology, which melts the waste into a glass-like substance, is still unproven and that the county overlooked important environmental issues before rushing the project through.

InEnTec and county officials, however, say they followed the proper procedures, that the facility will have minimal impact and the plant will even generate its own electricity, resulting in virtually no drain on the community’s power grid. Citizens, the company seems to suggest, won’t even know the facility is there, save for the about-15 jobs it brings to town.

It’s turned into the classic David-and-Goliath story—the small-town citizens versus the corporate behemoth—one that has occupied the front page of the Red Bluff Daily News for the better part of 2005.

As I stand on the side of the road with Green and members of her group, they say they’re confident that, even though ground has already been broken, there’s still a chance of stopping the project.

Red Bluff, named for the color of the terrain that lines the west bank of the Sacramento River, is a modest, slow-growing town that has always had the potential to grow beyond its role as a bedroom community to Redding and Chico. Locals tell out-of-towners who plan to pass through, “If you blink, you’ll probably miss it.”

Photo By Mark Lore

Old Victorian buildings, once home to hotels, saloons and brothels, have been restored along Main Street in Red Bluff’s downtown.

Over the past few years, as real estate prices in Chico jumped sharply and the city grew, Red Bluff became a logical stop on the map for those trying to flee the hectic life of the big city. A minor stir was caused by a rumor that big-game hunter/musician Ted Nugent was looking into buying a summer home along the Sac River in Red Bluff’s upscale Surrey Village.

My family moved to Red Bluff from Huntington Beach in 1983 to get away from what my dad refers to as “the rat-race.”

The town, situated on the Sacramento River, used to play host to the steamboats that shipped lumber and supplies to nearby mines. Today, Red Bluff functions as a minor hub for travelers and commerce, connecting to Interstate 5 and Highways 36 and 99. The location is one of the reasons InEnTec chose Red Bluff for its facility.

While the town is small in size, some big names and events have nudged Red Bluff onto the map since it was first settled back in the 1840s.

The 4-acre Ide Adobe Park, northeast of town along the river, immortalizes William B. Ide, the first and only president of the California Republic, who came here after the Mexican-American War in 1846 and made a fortune in the Northern Mines just before the Gold Rush. On the opposite end of town the Tehama County Fairgrounds hosts the annual Red Bluff Round-up, one of the largest three-day rodeos in America and the arena that spawned rodeo hero Lane Frost.

Other, more-notorious names have connections to Red Bluff, too, like Cameron Hooker, convicted in 1985 for kidnapping and then torturing for seven years a female hitchhiker who he kept locked in a coffin-sized box. His story was told in the true crime book Perfect Victim.

The same year Hooker was arrested the Cone-Kimball Building burned to the ground. The Victorian clock tower with its elaborate architecture was the tallest building in Red Bluff and a constant reminder of the town’s history.

At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of the old building. I was 11 years old and I remember standing on the corner of Main and Walnut with hundreds of other people. Some wept as the ashes of “the heart of Red Bluff” fell around them.

That was the last time I’d seen the community come together with such emotion until recently—the October day I attended the public hearing for the proposed medical waste site.

Lupe Green’s appearance is unassuming—a kindly face framed by a black, bobbed haircut—but she, along with others in the community, has taken on the role of the proverbial thorn in the side of the Richland, Wash.-based InEnTec, which began operation in the mid-1990s.

An InEnTec crew recently broke ground and is draining excess water from the site.

Photo By Mark Lore

Green (pictured with the “Justicia ahora” sign, page 16) has lived in nearby Rancho Tehama for five years and said she, like many, didn’t even know about the project until this past July, nearly six months after the Planning Commission issued a conditional use permit to InEnTec.

With the help of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, an environmental nonprofit out of San Francisco, Green and other locals have formed their own group, Citizens for Review of Infectious Medical Waste Imports into Tehama County.

Members of both groups say they believe InEnTec tried to slide the project in under the community radar during the hectic holiday season. A public notice asking for public comment was placed in the classifieds section of the Daily News in the middle of the week in December 2004. That alone has led critics to question InEnTec’s credibility.

Green and the group contend that some of the applications for permits turned into the Planning Commission and the Air Pollution Control District were incomplete and shouldn’t have been processed. They also question the county’s decision not to require an EIR.

“I think there have been enough irregularities that, either we will win on appeal and we’ll force them back to do a total environmental impact report, or there are tentative plans to go to court,” Green said.

It’s been a contentious few months to say the least.

At the October public hearing, tempers flared as community members argued about the seating arrangement as representatives of InEnTec occupied a row of desks at the front of the room. The battle illustrated the community’s mistrust of the company.

“It shows favoritism for InEnTec over the community,” insisted Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction.

Approximately 30 community members crowded into the Tehama County Courthouse that night, questioning why an EIR wasn’t issued for an unproven technology. The group also expressed concern over what sort of emissions the facility could potentially be releasing into the air.

One woman at the hearing asked no one in particular, as she looked over an information sheet on dioxin, “How many in this community, or any community, knows what all this is?”

George Robson, Tehama County’s planning director, told the News & Review recently that an EIR wasn’t necessary in this case, explaining that emissions from the facility are far lower than the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

InEnTec bought the land from Louisiana Pacific, right next door to another LP mill.

Photo By Mark Lore

Robson said it’s easy for people to get spooked by the idea of a medical-waste facility in their backyard but added that the plant will not incinerate waste, but melt it using a Plasma Enhanced Melter.

“We all need to keep our hats on and not let the words fool you,” Robson said.

Tim Chaffin, who’s lived in Red Bluff most of his life, said he didn’t find out about the facility until a few months ago and that InEnTec has failed to address new information that has been presented by Greenaction.

“In my opinion they took diligence, reasonable and prudence out of due process,” Chaffin said.

As part of an attempt to stave off accusations of bias, Dudley Burton, chair for environmental engineering and management department at California State University, Sacramento, was brought in as a third party to review permits from the Tehama County Planning Commission and the Tehama County Air Pollution Control District as well as comment at the public hearings.

Burton said he found nothing wrong with the permits. “It was done with time and care by qualified professionals and I don’t think there’s much to complain about.”

He said research has shown that the plasma arc technology produces 100 times less dioxin than the EPA’s limit, a key factor in the county giving the project a Negative Declaration.

Burton said that essentially you’ll ingest more dioxin by eating a piece of steak than from inhaling near the InEnTec plant.

However, as with all new technology, Burton said there is the potential for mechanical glitches. That’s what worries many locals.

One of the issues raised by Greenaction and many citizens of Red Bluff about InEnTec setting up shop in Tehama County is the company’s Plasma Enhanced Melter system.

The technology was invented by Daniel Cohn, Jeffrey Surma and Charles Titus in the labs of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Tractors move earth in preparation for InEntec’s medical-waste facility near Red Bluff.

Photo By Mark Lore

Unlike incinerators, the Plasma Enhanced Melter produces gas (known as “stream reforming gasification”) to break down medical waste. The gasification occurs at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees and “reforms” organic waste into hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas and will turn non-organic material into a glass-like substance.

“We’re head and shoulders above other technologies,” said David Farmer, president of InEnTec. “This is the way waste should be treated.”

Farmer said while the technique costs more than simply burning the waste, the plasma arc technology will cut down on waste being dangerously transported to landfills throughout the state while reducing dioxin emissions.

The Red Bluff facility will handle medical waste in Tehama County as well as other parts of Northern California.

And Farmer said InEnTec is motivated to act responsibly. “If we don’t comply [with EPA], we shut down, and that’s not very good economics.”

Over the past 19 years, Angel, of Greenaction, says he has worked with hundreds of communities facing pollution problems. It’s clear that he’s not a big fan of InEnTec.

“They admitted that they never evaluated the fact that everybody in Red Bluff, Tehama County and California, for that matter, already has toxins in their bodies,” Angel said. “It’s a cumulative impact.”

Angel said InEnTec claimed on its own Web site that the plasma arc technology didn’t emit any dioxins. (After Greenaction alerted the company to the misstatement, InEnTec took the “no problems” claim off of its Web site.)

But Angel said there are other concerns. A facility in Hawaii which uses the plasma arc was forced to shut down for several months because the refractory, which is the lining inside the kiln, wasn’t replaced when it should have been.

Farmer said InEnTec sold the technology to the Hawaii firm, but didn’t actually own or operate the facility and explained that the firm didn’t properly maintain the equipment. The company also has facilities in Taiwan and Japan, which has even stricter environmental standards than the EPA, and is looking to open more across the U.S.

The Red Bluff facility will be the first that InEnTec owns and operates. The company bought the land, located next to two mills and a dairy, from Louisiana Pacific and started the permit process in September 2004.

“The criticism is based on people who haven’t heard good information, or don’t want to hear it,” Farmer said.

The group now has to wait until the next step in the appeal process, an all-day meeting Dec.20. In a situation reminiscent of last year, the debate will take place right before Christmas.

Angel says it’s difficult to take anything InEntec officials say at face value given how the process has been handled so far.

“It’s hard to think of another permit process that was more questionable, sloppy and, quite honestly, more scandalous.”