Little Heat on La Jolla Toxic Waste Burning Plan : Company's Effort to Inform Public About High-Tech Incinerator Pays Off

Times Staff Writer

At first blush, the idea seems startling and incongruous--a toxic-waste incinerator among the eucalyptus groves of La Jolla. A major high-technology research and development firm that intends to operate one has applied to the federal government for a permit.

Yet the reaction in this cushy corner of San Diego has been muted, as soft as the pastels lining Prospect Place and architect Irving Gill's famous arches. In a community known for collective sturm und drang over matters aesthetic, few La Jollans seem concerned.

"Rightly or wrongly, the community seems to get more excited about a neon sculpture or the Museum of Contemporary Art moving than they do about a pilot toxic-waste incinerator," mused Kenneth King, former president of the La Jolla Town Council.

Tuesday evening, in the auditorium of University City High School, GA Technologies will hold a large public meeting to discuss its plans. The 7 o'clock confab will cap nearly a year of meticulous groundwork by GA to prepare La Jolla for the idea of toxic incineration.

There have been press briefings and slide shows and innumerable tours for groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters. As a result, community leaders and others say they have come to believe that GA's plan may well make sense.

"I'm sure there are people out in the community who don't love what we are doing," said Nicki Hobson, public relations manager for GA. "But at least the ones we've been successful in bringing in and talking with, they are not scared out of their wits, and are neutral."

GA's plan is to burn limited amounts of toxic waste in a small incinerator it has built on its sprawling dukedom off Genessee Avenue and North Torrey Pines Road. In an attempt to sell copies of the incinerator to industries, it would be testing their waste in the burner.

The test burns would occur once or twice a month, each lasting two or three days, officials say. The amounts of waste would be small, Hobson said, ranging from perhaps one pound to a dozen barrels, depending on the waste.

The La Jolla plant will never be used commercially, officials say--that is, it will never serve as a waste-disposal facility for industry. Hobson predicted its use will gradually diminish as an increasing number of GA-built burners begin operating around the country.

In making its case to La Jollans, GA has stressed that it is no newcomer--"a member of the San Diego business community for over 30 years." A developer of nuclear reactors, among other things, GA is an internationally known research and engineering firm.

GA goes on to talk about the country's toxic waste problems--more than 200 million tons generated annually, and no place to put them. Traditional disposal methods, such as landfills, are no longer acceptable, so federal policy is encouraging incineration.

Finally, Hobson stresses that GA did not set out to build a toxic waste incinerator in La Jolla. It was building an energy combustion system, which unexpectedly turned out to have a potential to burn toxic waste.

"So the equipment is already here," she said. "We could not afford to tear it down and move it someplace else. So (the testing) would just not get done, and that would be a shame."

Over the past year, Hobson figures, she has devoted 25% of her time to making GA's case to the community. That has involved contacting every interested community and environmental group she could think of, and inviting them in for a presentation.

There have been slide shows before local planning groups and a lengthy briefing for reporters late last summer. Hobson says she sent out hundreds of invitations to the public meeting scheduled for tomorrow evening.

"We looked at the way other permits were handled, and generally the public does not get involved until very, very late in the process," she said. "Not only do they not understand what's going on, but they have a feeling that somebody's trying to pull something over on them."

For the most part, GA's strategy appears to have worked.

A La Jolla Town Council delegation toured the plant and came away favorably impressed, said Kenneth King, who was council president at the time. A chemist from the Sierra Club found the technology good, though she had reservations about how it might be used elsewhere.

Paul Saltman, a UC San Diego biology professor who lives near the plant and has been active in La Jolla planning issues in the past, said he had looked at GA's information and discussed the proposal with other scientists. He believes the tests should proceed.

The League of Women Voters, too, arranged for a tour. In the end, only one member made it. "She came back and said it's all very interesting," said Susan Perry, retiring program director for the San Diego league. "But her comment was, 'I don't know how to weight that.' "

Since the League has no official position on toxic incineration, it has no position on GA's proposal, said Perry. Similarly, the national Sierra Club has not yet developed its position on waste burning so its members, too, have not taken a stance on the La Jolla case.

There are, however, at least a handful of skeptics.

Diane Takvorian of the Environmental Health Coalition, a San Diego group that specializes in issues involving toxics, expressed reservations about the plant's location near the university, several main thoroughfares, wetlands and Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Takvorian questioned the reliability of GA's previous tests, which indicated that emissions would be kept within federal limits. She said the company used pure, unmixed wastes in the tests. What emissions would occur if mixed wastes were burned? she wondered.

Finally, Takvorian argued that it is unreasonable to ask communities to accept waste burners when government and industry have failed to develop broader plans for siting facilities and reducing the amount of waste generated.

Another critic of GA's proposal is Sue Oxley, who led the battles for building height restrictions in downtown La Jolla and a special La Jolla cultural zone. Oxley spoke of the danger of transporting waste into La Jolla and the potential for human error.

"I can't understand, when there have been so many instances of accidental and human error . . . that anybody can be complacent," Oxley said. " . . . It makes me even more suspicious of their project that they felt they had to get a PR person."

One man, not a resident of La Jolla but active in several La Jolla-based groups, said he was strongly opposed to the plan and expressed mystification at the lack of public awareness or concern.

"I think that the first perception is kind of incredulousness," said the man, who asked not to be named. "It's like, 'You're kidding. No, it's not what you're saying it is.' Or, 'You must be overreacting.' . . . And do you know, my response was exactly what I'm saying has been everyone else's response: 'What are you, a flaming radical? Don't wig out on me.'

"Then I started peeling it away," he added. "Even looking at it in distilled, hygienic prose, the thing stinks. It doesn't stand dispassionate scrutiny. It's the wrong location for experimenting with air quality . . . They didn't experiment with atomic projects downtown, either."

Then he added, whimsically, alluding to La Jolla's color-coordination, "It might be all right if they painted it mauve and gray, but I can't imagine it fitting in."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World