Phoenix residents who still may be intoxicated by the sweet smell of victory over a proposed hazardous-waste incinerator fifty miles to the southwest may soon be inhaling emissions of a slightly different sort.
Even as toasts were poured to celebrate the demise of the wildly unpopular ENSCO project, two proposed new commercial-waste incinerators, to burn medical and infectious wastes, were quietly inching their way toward approval in Phoenix and Buckeye.
One, recently granted zoning by Buckeye town officials, would be built by Edwards-Garcia Industries of Buckeye. (One of the principals is Rex Edwards, former manager of an ENSCO incinerator in Arkansas. Edwards was to have been manager of ENSCO's Arizona project.)
A second incinerator, proposed by Eco-Pro Industries of Arizona for 23rd Avenue and Van Buren Street, is before the Phoenix Planning Commission. Eco-Pro is seeking the waiver of a Phoenix ordinance that prohibits new commercial-waste incinerators inside city limits.
Both facilities need additional permits from the state and county, but Phoenix City Hall insiders express amazement that either has gotten even this far, given the uproar over ENSCO and an existing incinerator at Maricopa Medical Center that has been a target of complaints by county health workers.
Principals in both new projects have been turned down elsewhere in Arizona in their attempts to build medical-waste incinerators. Edwards and a different partner were turned down by Pinal County last year, and their suit against that county's Board of Supervisors was thrown out. A year and a half ago, the Gila River Indian Community rejected a proposal by Eco-Pro to build a medical-waste incinerator on the reservation.
Backers of both new projects claim their incinerators are needed because a new state law tightens controls on the disposal of medical wastes.
"We believe many medical facilities, rather than going to the expense of complying with the new regulations, will instead look for a commercial incinerator to handle their wastes," says Lance Wells, president of Eco-Pro Industries of Arizona. "The need will be here for a state-of-the-art facility."
Skeptics contend, however, that the real market for these new incinerators would be medwaste from California, where state officials recently ordered the addition of expensive pollution-control equipment to eliminate emissions of heavy metals, dioxin and other toxics common to medwaste incinerators. Both new incinerators would be located adjacent to major transportation links between Arizona and California. Eco-Pro would be situated next to the Southern Pacific Railroad line; the Edwards-Garcia plant would be next to Interstate 10.
Eco-Pro's Wells admits he hasn't exactly tied down his customer list yet. "We don't have contracts at this point," he says. "There's no point to it yet because there's too much uncertainty in the permitting process; it's an extremely political process."
Both Wells and Edwards deny that their intended markets are California, although Edwards says it's possible that his incinerator would take California wastes "if it's economically feasible." Wells notes that Eco-Pro stipulated to city zoning officials that no infectious waste would be imported from California.
He acknowledges, however, that the company would accept two other types of waste from California: outdated pharmaceuticals and drug contraband confiscated by law-enforcement agencies.
Officials in Buckeye say they received similar assurances from Edwards-Garcia. "The way I understand it, primarily here would be their market," says Fred Carpenter, Buckeye town manager. "Many of the old incineration facilities are out of permit and don't want to spend the money to upgrade their facilities."
Carpenter contends that plants like the one proposed by Edwards-Garcia officials "really don't put out much in the way of fumes." He adds, "As they explained it, you'd get more exhaust from standing next to a diesel truck stop."
Not so, says the Sierra Club's Michael Gregory. "Under current law," he says, "emissions from the incinerators are not well-monitored and current technology is not adequate to destroy the toxic products of incineration, which come not from the biological wastes, but from the packaging required by law. Most of the packaging is plastic, which is what creates most of the toxics, along with dioxin and other by-products of incomplete combustion."
Nor is Arizona's law headed for a big beef-up, he says. "Arizona's legislature has defeated two attempts to strengthen the state law on air toxics in the last two years," Gregory notes. The upcoming changes in Arizona's law don't address emissions control at all, but rather are confined to regulating storage, handling and definition of medical wastes.
In its zoning application to the City of Phoenix, Eco-Pro contends that existing commercial medwaste incinerators operated by Waste Management Incorporated (WMI) and Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) don't meet the guidelines of the new state law.
"We're the only one that will have state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment to control toxic emissions," Wells claims.
Officials of WMI and BFI dispute that. BFI, which operates a once-controversial medwaste incinerator next to the Maricopa County Medical Center in central Phoenix, is now adding pollution-control equipment like that required in California, says Mark Anderson, district manager for BFI Medical Wastes. Anderson says he expects the equipment to be on-line by the end of July.
WMI, which recently bought an incinerator located on the Gila River Indian Reservation, has made a similar commitment to state environmental officials, although the plant is technically exempt from state regulation because it is on Indian land. "Our incinerator is not subject to state regulation, but we got a state permit anyway," says Patricia Kimball, general manager of WMI's medical-waste division in Phoenix.
Anderson and Kimball also dispute the notion from their new rivals that already-existing incinerators are too small to handle Arizona's pile of medical wastes. "Arizona is one of the smallest generators in the nation," Kimball observes. "There is more than enough capacity in the existing facilities to handle just Arizona wastes into the foreseeable future."
Both Eco-Pro and Edwards-Garcia need additional permits from the state and county before they can build, let alone operate, their incinerators. The Phoenix Planning Commission, which was to have acted on Eco-Pro's application May 10, has rescheduled it for July 10 so another hearing and a review by the city's environmental-quality panel could be held.
"I can't believe this thing was just sailing through without even a public hearing or being seen by the city's Environmental Quality Commission," says a source close to the Phoenix Planning Commission.
Even environmental activist Pam Swift, a nemesis of the now-dead ENSCO plant, didn't know about one of the two newly proposed incinerators. Told about the Eco-Pro project, Swift said, "Noooo, I hadn't heard of that one." Swift lives only about a mile from the Eco-Pro site.
Phoenix city planner Steve Muenker, who is handling the Eco-Pro application, says no one was trying to pull a fast one; he just didn't think it was a big deal.
"I'm not aware of any controversy around medical-waste incinerators," Muenker says.
In case you don't recall, the controversy surrounding the existing medical-waste incinerator at Maricopa Medical Center generated front-page MDRV headlines for several weeks in 1989.
Both facilities need more permits from the state and county, but Phoenix City Hall insiders express amazement that either has gotten even this far.