Clearing the way for the incineration of hazardous wastes from Fullerton's McColl dump, the Air Pollution Control District on Wednesday announced that it intends to allow Ogden Environmental Services to conduct a controversial test burn of the petroleum-tainted soil at a site near the UC San Diego campus.
The agency's preliminary decision to allow the incineration at the La Jolla facility was made after health-risk studies showed that the chances of anyone contracting cancer from the test burn were less than 3.6 in a million--far less than the scientific standard for safety of 10 chances in a million, according to R.J. Sommerville, the county's air pollution officer.
"The evaluation we have done . . . indicates that there is minimal public health impact," Sommerville said.
The APCD decision brought sighs of relief from Ogden officials, for whom the air pollution agency's approval represented the last regulatory hurdle before the controversial experiment could proceed.
But environmentalists on Wednesday reacted angrily to the announcement and vowed to take their fight against the test burn to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which sits as the APCD board and runs the agency.
"We want to see what role they (supervisors) can play in changing this decision," said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition.
Ogden has proposed the test to determine whether its "circulating bed combustor" process can be used to safely dispose of petroleum-tainted soil from the abandoned McColl dump, which is listed as a Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The soil contains 33 compounds, including heavy metals and suspected carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and chloroform.
The tests were to take place over a 3- to 5-day period, consuming thirty 55-gallon barrels of the tainted soil by heating it to 1,425 degrees Fahrenheit in an experimental incinerator at the company's offices on Torrey Pines Mesa.
Those plans, however, ran into stiff opposition from local environmentalists and elected officials. They objected to the burn because of potential health risks and the fact that it would be conducted in a populated area that includes UCSD, a child-care center, three hospitals, numerous residences and the Torrey Pines Reserve.
The test burn here may lead to a similar test burn of toxic waste at the World War II-era dump in Fullerton later this spring.
Earlier this month, the EPA recommended that the best way to rid the 8-acre site of 150,000 tons of contaminated refinery waste and oil-drilling muds is to burn it on site. But EPA officials said they want to run a series of test burns at the dump before implementing the cleanup plan, which is estimated to cost $117 million.
If the test burn at Ogden is successful, EPA officials said the next step will be to build a temporary incinerator at the McColl site, perhaps as early as April.
The aim of the test burn is to determine whether burning McColl waste locally would violate federal air quality standards in Southern California, a heavily polluted area that already is under strict mandate to meet requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.
The San Diego City Council tried to block Ogden's project by denying the firm a "conditional-use permit" for the incinerator. But U.S. District Judge Judith Keep ruled last June that the city had no authority to stop the tests, which have been encouraged by the federal government in its quest to find alternate ways of getting rid of hazardous wastes.
Meanwhile, Ogden received approval for the test burn from the state Department of Health Services and the EPA. All that remained was getting the green light from the APCD, which announced its tentative approval on Wednesday after 2 months of study.
Sommerville said the agency performed a health-risk study to see what would happen if Ogden were to conduct its test burn around the clock for the next 70 years.
Even at those extraordinarily high levels, the cancer risk from the heavy metals and carcinogens would be no more than 3.6 chances in a million--a number so small that it would represent negligible impact on public health, he said.
During the agency's scrutiny of the Ogden proposal, the company volunteered to change its incineration procedure so as to further dilute the concentration of compounds in the McColl soil to be tested, Jack Allen, a senior vice president at Ogden, said.
Originally, the company intended to simply feed the 30 barrels of tainted soil into the La Jolla incinerator. But the change, proposed last month, calls for Ogden to combine the tainted soil with an equal amount of good dirt--thus cutting the strength of any potentially dangerous compounds in half, Allen explained.
Takvorian said the company's decision to cut down the concentration of potentially dangerous compounds in its test burn was a "victory" of sorts for environmentalists.
However, she and other opponents of the test burn said they were unhappy with the APCD decision, which is considered preliminary until the agency makes a final ruling on the matter after a 15-day period for public comment.
Times staff writer Steven R. Churm in Orange County contributed to this story.