Free of regulatory and legal obstacles, Ogden Environmental Services on Monday began firing up its controversial incinerator atop Torrey Pines Mesa for a long-awaited test burn of hazardous waste, scheduled to begin early today.
The test, which will be conducted under the watchful eyes of federal and county regulators or their proxies during parts of the next four days, was to start when the incinerator reached the optimum temperature of 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Ogden officials said that could be as early as 2 a.m. today.
If all goes according to Ogden’s plans, workers will begin the burn by introducing a mixture of clean sand and contaminated soil from the McColl waste dump in Fullerton into the incinerator, where hazardous wastes are to be 99.99% destroyed in a swirling dust storm.
Ash Settles to Bottom
Thirty-two compounds, including 18 suspected carcinogens, are the targets of the process. After they are burned, gases will be cooled to about 200 degrees, cleaned and released into the atmosphere; ash will settle to the bottom of the chamber and will be removed. The procedure will be repeated during the next four days until the equivalent of 30 drums of waste is consumed.
The test is the first step toward Ogden’s goal of winning an approximately $120-million federal Superfund contract to clean up 150,000 tons of sludges and oils at the McColl dump. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has determined that incineration is the preferred method of doing that, but Ogden faces competition from other firms vying for the contract, John Blevins, McColl project manager for the EPA, told reporters at a briefing held by Ogden.
The EPA will pay three private contractors $560,000 to monitor the gases and ash, maintain the sampling equipment and prepare a report that is due out in about six weeks. Also on hand will be representatives from the county Air Pollution Control District.
“We wouldn’t be conducting this if our own technical evaluation of the test left any doubt in our minds” about safety, said Joe McSorley, the project manager of the EPA’s Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation project. The EPA is encouraging the development of innovative technology for disposal of hazardous waste.
County Air Pollution Control Officer R. J. Sommerville said his office will monitor the test burn “very closely” and is prepared to halt it if there is an unexpected release of toxic gases into the air.
Programmed to Shut Down
Sommerville said that is highly unlikely because the incinerator’s computer is programmed to stop feeding material into the chamber if higher than expected amounts of toxic compounds are discovered by internal monitors. The incinerator is also programmed to shut down automatically if the situation worsens.
Although Ogden has contingency plans that would be used in the event of a “catastrophe,” executives believe there is a “tremendously remote chance of that happening,” said Jack Allen, senior vice president for the firm.
However, Director of Operations Robert G. Wilbourn acknowledged that, in a 1985 test of the incinerator, a filter malfunctioned and dust circulating inside the incinerator was sprayed about the building housing the facility. No one was contaminated in that accident, he said.
Ogden and its predecessor, GA Technologies, have gone through years of regulatory review by the EPA, the state Department of Health Services and the county Air Pollution Control District to reach this moment. Ogden also won a lengthy legal battle with the city of San Diego, which sought to block the test burn, and has been the target of critics opposed to burning the waste in a populated section of La Jolla.
Officials at three nearby hospitals and UC San Diego reported that they are taking no extra precautions during the test burn.
“We haven’t really felt it was necessary,” said Marty Malter, director of environmental health and safety at UCSD, where students are off for the week but a child-care center near the Ogden facility is expected to be open. “Last year, when it was going through the permitting process, we reviewed it very carefully.
“We have a gentleman’s agreement with them that, if they release anything they’re not expecting, they’ll call us immediately,” she added. “I personally feel very comfortable.”
Jim McIlraith, director of environmental health and safety at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, said the hospital has made no special plans for the week. “They’re meeting the EPA requirements for effluent, and we’re upwind from them,” he said.