Red Bluff medical-waste project seems unstoppable

Opponents of a medical-waste disposal site that a Washington-based company wants to build in Red Bluff say they are getting no help from county officials and are afraid the plant will be built over the objections of most residents.

In a series of meetings being held this week in Red Bluff, opponents of the InEnTech company’s proposed medical-waste incinerator are grilling county planning officials before the county’s air pollution control board, which granted a rare appeal of the plant’s use permit.

Red Bluff City Councilman Dan Irving, a former city planning commissioner, said the plant never should have been approved.

“This thing—I don’t like to use the word criminal but it’s as close as you can get without making that [accusation],” he said. “This thing’s a mess and I’m probably at this point betting on InEnTech getting established up here.”

The plant is not a traditional incinerator but a Plasma Arc melting device that would roast medical waste at temperatures around 2,000 degrees, which would melt the waste down into supposedly reusable or recyclable glasses and metals. InEnTech claims that despite operational problems with a similar plant the company helped build in Hawaii the process is environmentally clean, releasing very few compounds back into the atmosphere.

But nobody can actually say whether that is true or not, because the project was given the go-ahead with almost no public participation and no environmental review. In fact, Irving said, the project was permitted not as a medical-waste disposal site but as a power generation plant. While the company’s Web site does claim that “electrical power generated may be enough to maintain PEM™ system operation and, in the case of certain waste streams, provide substantial excess power that could be sold to power generators or energy brokers.”

“It almost sounds like your perpetual motion machine, doesn’t it?” Irving asked. “At first, they were making claims that it would add power back to the grid, that it was a power-generating facility. They did that to get around the environmental review.”

Irving said he has been fighting the plant ever since it was quietly approved by Tehama County Planning Director George Robison in December. The site proposed for the plant is zoned “moderate industrial” a designation normally reserved for lumber mills, blacksmith shops and ceramic kilns.

Robison wasn’t available for comment by press time, but Irving said Robison pushed the project through after an unusual “pre-consultation” process.

“It’s not provided for in [the California Environmental Quality Act]; no one else seems to do it,” Irving said. “It made a lot of things confusing, because CEQA is very timetable and statutory driven. What he does is sort of frontloads everything over dinner and in telephone conversations.”

The deadlines for challenging the project under CEQA have long run out, and this month’s hearings before the county air pollution control board may be Red Bluff citizens’ last chance to stop the project. Yet even that is a dicey proposition, as it is almost impossible to prove there will air pollution from a plant that has yet to be built.

Irving, a Republican, said that although he has been portrayed in the local press as “an environmental NIMBY,” he is not an environmentalist but a concerned citizen. By his estimation, 80 percent of those living in Red Bluff oppose the project.

“The short term cons would be about 35 to 40 trucks filled with infectious and pathogenic medical material running through the streets of Red Bluff on county highways,” he said. “[There is] the danger of having radioactive material—they’re not supposed to but these things do enter the waste-stream—and having them blow out two 40-foot stacks five miles outside of town. Not just that but non-identifiable body parts—as long as you can’t identify it as a body part it can go into the waste-stream. Hormones, pharmaceuticals, things that if they got in to the soil who knows what they could do to the ecology.”

A final public hearing on the project, set to be a marathon 15-hour meeting, is scheduled for Dec. 23.