Bearing signs reading "Ban the Toxic Burn," residents of La Jolla, Del Mar and neighboring communities turned out in force Friday night to protest a plan to burn hazardous waste amid the eucalyptus trees on Torrey Pines Mesa.
The turnout was at a hearing held to gauge citizens' sentiment on a tentative decision by state health officials to allow Ogden Environmental Services Inc. to operate an experimental toxic waste incinerator over the next five years.
The controversial proposal has mobilized a sizable army of critics who contend that the health threats posed by emissions from such waste-burners are poorly understood.
Adding color to the standing-room-only crowd of 200 community residents and environmentalists were Greenpeace members, who wore white jumpsuits like those used by workers who clean up toxic spills and exhibited a 20-foot-tall skeleton figure draped in black cloth.
'Should be Tested'
"Although we agree that the development of safe, alternative methods for the destruction of toxic waste is of great importance, we feel to do so in a populated area . . . is unwise," said Dr. Michael Oxman, chairman of the La Jolla Shores Assn.'s board of directors. "While this may appear to be a not-in-my-backyard position, we feel that technology like this should be tested in an area with as few backyards as possible."
David Willis, deputy director of the state Department of Health Services, said officials will review the comments presented Friday and announce a final decision in the coming weeks. The department will accept written comments on the proposal until July 16.
Before it can fire up the incinerator, Ogden still must win a conditional use permit and the endorsement of the San Diego City Council. Although the county Air Pollution Control District has issued a permit for the device, a district spokesman said the company needs specific approvals for each type of waste it wants to burn.
The incinerator is a circulating-bed combustor that is billed as an advanced treatment technique for disposing of hazardous material. The 16-inch diameter incinerator, would burn waste at a minimum temperature of 1350 degrees Fahrenheit reducing the waste to an ash that company officials say would be nontoxic.
Ogden officials say numerous studies show that their experimental burns would have no negative effect on the public or the environment. They also argue that incineration is key to helping address the nation's hazardous-waste disposal problem.
'Contribution to Make'
"We feel that we have a contribution to make and that the state and the EPA have made independent findings that it is safe," Ogden Vice President Brian Baxter said in an interview. "(Incineration) is not an answer to everything, but it can make a significant contribution to solving what people know to be a pressing and important social problem, disposing of hazardous materials."
In February, Ogden received a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct test burns on 365 operating days or over five calendar years, whichever is shorter. During each test series, no more than 150 drums containing 55 gallons of waste could be burned.
Under the experimental permit, Ogden may burn samples of waste from customers interested in buying an incinerator. Baxter predicted that most of the materials burned will be contaminated soils, along with some solvents and sludges. Normally, such materials are disposed of at high cost in specially licensed landfills.
EPA officials, who say that new alternatives to burying hazardous waste must be found, argue that the permit contains conditions that will protect the environment and the public.
Before each test burn, the company must send EPA a description of the waste, how much will be treated and under what conditions. After the incineration, a final report must be submitted within 240 days.
The EPA also required the installation of a pollution control device to trap particles emitted from the incinerator's 30-foot stack and will periodically require testing to ensure that the incinerator is working properly.
Despite such safeguards, critics remain skeptical, and the San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit group active on toxics issues, has appealed the EPA permit.
Other opponents, among them La Jollans Inc., have sounded the alarm about the location of the facility--near Scripps Clinic, Miramar Naval Air Station, UC San Diego and the ecologically sensitive Torrey Pines State Preserve.
Edward Gorham, an epidemiologist skeptical of the experimental burner's efficiency in destroying toxic compounds, worries that the incinerator will "serve as a toxic waste magnet for distant problem landfill sites all around the country."
Last month, state health officials joined the fray, announcing tentative plans to give their blessing to the experiment. Particularly worrisome to critics was the state's decision not to require a full-scale review of the incinerator's environmental and public health impacts.
Takvorian maintains that the state's position is downright illegal.
"The way we read (the California Environmental Quality Act), any time you have the potential for impact on the environment and public health, there must be an" environmental impact report, Takvorian said. "Our organization and the scientists we've been working with have submitted hundreds of pages of documentation on this to the state and they've ignored us."
Bellomo said that isn't the case. But he maintains that limitations in the proposed permit--on the amount of waste that can be burned and stored at the facility, for example--mitigate the potential risks.
To rally support for its position, the coalition sent out 20,000 bright yellow mailers to residents of La Jolla, Del Mar and University City.
On Wednesday, more attention was called to the matter when 30 members of the group Greenpeace blocked the main entrance to the campus-like compound of GA Technologies, where New York-based Ogden houses the incinerator and its employees. The blockade lasted more than four hours, causing some employees to be late for work and creating a traffic jam.
"We oppose incineration, period, until more facts are known," said Bradley Angel, toxics director for Greenpeace, whose members have fought similar burners throughout the country and attended the hearing. "When you burn hazardous waste, you get new combustibles that may have health effects we can't even conceive of."
Ogden's Baxter said that after the five-year research permit expires, company officials hope to help distribute the technology for commercial use worldwide.