Med-waste flap

InEnTec: Back to square one

SOMETHING IN THE AIR<br>Members of Citizens for Review of Infectious Medical Waste Imports demonstrate in front of the proposed medical site in 2005.

Members of Citizens for Review of Infectious Medical Waste Imports demonstrate in front of the proposed medical site in 2005.

Photo By Mark Lore

Richard Clapp moved to Red Bluff for the same reason many people do. The now-retired elementary-school teacher traded in the bustle of the city for the clean air of the country back in 1971, and raised a daughter who now has a family of her own in the modest town of 13,000.

Red Bluff has been growing in recent years—a good thing—with new retail outlets bringing in much-needed sales tax, while the old Victorian buildings have received facelifts, making them more appealing for boutiques in the downtown area.

But it came as a bit of a shock to residents when, two years ago, they discovered the county had approved construction of a huge medical-waste facility that would use a new plasma arc technology to “melt” down tons of waste, including syringes, fluids and even body parts, into a glass-like substance.

The battle between Integrated Environmental Technologies (InEnTec), a company out of Richland, Wash., that specializes in medical-waste treatment, and a small group of residents has raged ever since.

Now, the two sides are going back before the Tehama County Air Pollution Control District hearing board on Monday, Sept. 10, for what will likely be the final decision in a long, back-and-forth battle to keep the facility out of Red Bluff.

“Hopefully they’ll decide that trucking in the state’s medical waste and shooting it up into the air is not a good idea,” said Dan Irving, the local counsel for the ad-hoc group Citizens for Review of Infectious Medical Waste Imports.

Irving told the CN&R this week that one of the main concerns is the potential for radioactive material to make it into the plasma-enhanced melter (PEM) system, a new technology that “glassifies” waste by heating it to temperatures of 2,000 degrees. When properly stored in buckets, radioactive waste is difficult to detect, Irving says, making it easy to slip through to the PEM unit.

The group has also contended that InEnTec mischaracterized the facility from the get-go, claiming it would not emit any dioxin, and that current air-quality regulations don’t cover a technology they say is unproven. Two similar facilities, in Hawaii and Washington, were shut down for several months after experiencing mechanical problems.

InEnTec has countered in the past that the problems were the result of poor management. William Quapp, InEnTec’s vice president of project development, declined to comment when contacted for this story.

Citizens for Review has charged that the county tried to backdoor the project in December 2004 without an environmental-impact report.

Two Bay Area environmental organizations caught wind and joined residents to try to keep the medical-waste facility out of Red Bluff.

“This is a very typical situation where you have an outside company coming in without a community’s knowledge or consent,” said Luke Cole, executive director at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, the San Francisco-based group that has provided legal council to Citizens for Review from the beginning.

The process itself has been a soap opera. The citizens group won its appeal back in December 2005. InEnTec challenged, and a judge ordered that the citizens needed to change some of the language in their complaint. And when it came back before the air pollution control district in February 2007, two of the three board members present voted to wait until a fourth returned from vacation (the fifth member had already disqualified himself) but were told they needed a majority of three to delay their meeting.

The citizens claimed the instruction was incorrect, and a judge decided to bring it back in September for a rehearing, where both sides will again make arguments as to why the facility should or should not be built.

Clapp, who retired from teaching three years ago, has since started his own environmental group, called Tehama County Citizens for a Healthy Community. He said there are even some people who were born and raised in Red Bluff who said they’ll pick up and leave if a facility is built.

Like many, Clapp fears residents will essentially become guinea pigs for a technology that still has a lot of holes. “It may be the technology of the future,” he said, “but it’s not proven now.”