Possibly the Last Hurdle : La Jolla Toxic Waste Burn Gets Green Light

Times Staff Writer

Clearing the way for the incineration of hazardous wastes in La Jolla, the Air Pollution Control District on Wednesday announced that it intends to allow Ogden Environmental Services to conduct a controversial test burn of petroleum-tainted soil near the UC San Diego campus.

The agency's preliminary decision 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, said 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 agency's approval represented the last regulatory hurdle before the controversial experiment could proceed.

A Vow to Fight On

But environmentalists reacted angrily Wednesday to the announcement and vowed to carry their fight against the test burn to the County Board of Supervisors, which sits as the APCD board and runs the agency.

"We want to see what role they (the 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 Fullerton's McColl waste 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 original tests were to take place over a three- to five-day period, consuming 30 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 San Diego City Council tried to block the project by denying Ogden 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.

Health Risk Study

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 Wednesday after two 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 to further dilute the concentration of compounds in the McColl soil to be tested, said Jack Allen, a senior vice president at Ogden.

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, said Allen.

"We were trying to make damn sure the risk assessment was such that the results would come out favorably," said Allen, who added that his company was "pleased" with the APCD ruling.

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.

Wants Board to Act

San Diego City Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose district includes the Torrey Pines Mesa incineration site, said she was "embarrassed" by the APCD's decision.

"I'm frightened," Wolfsheimer said. "I don't see any system set up to regulate the transportation of the McColl toxics to this area, and I don't see any real regulation with respect to the burn itself.

"We don't know what the impacts will be on skin, unborn children. We don't have a definitive study on the effects on the human body."

Takvorian said she wants the County Board of Supervisors to nullify the APCD's decision.

Whether that can be done, however, is still undetermined. County Supervisor Susan Golding said county officials were unable late Wednesday to determine what, if any, authority the supervisors have to overturn the administrative decision. The supervisors sit as the APCD board and approve the agency's budget.

"Nobody seems to be able to tell me, including Rich Sommerville," Golding said. "I asked that specific question: Can the board overrule it?"

Golding also said she was upset because the APCD opted not to have a public hearing on the test burns before issuing its preliminary decision.

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