Not until she learned of a proposal to operate a medical waste facility on Division Street in West Warwick did Denise Lopez hear of the word pyrolysis.
Now, Lopez – who lives in East Greenwich about a quarter-mile away from 1600 Division St., where MedRecycler plans to process 70 tons of medical waste daily – is a leader in the fight to stop the project.
From her point of view, there are too many unanswered questions for the Department of Environment Management to issue the New Jersey-based company a permit. For starters, her research has found that the only operation in the world to use pyrolysis to dispose of medical waste is in New Mexico, and that was recently closed.
That’s one of many red flags she has raised. She questions why Rhode Island needs MedRecycler when it already has a company to dispose of medical waste; why MedRecycler has proceeded with a 10-year lease and acquired equipment when it has yet to gain state and town approvals – is there a deal here? – and how DEM is going to evaluate the MedRecycler application when it doesn’t have standards by which to judge pyrolysis. She’s dug deeper.
She’s questioned the Environmental Protection Agency about what’s proposed here and researched the major investors in Sun Pacific Holdings, the mother company to MedRecycler. She’s followed the Sun Pacific stock, read its reports and concludes it is financially in trouble. MedRecycler is seeking $17 million in state tax-exempt bonds to finance the facility.
Lopez has researched Technotherm, the South African company that is operating a pyrolysis plant and is providing the technology to MedRecycler. She’s asked whether the Department of Transportation should have a role in the permit process, since this medical waste is going to be transported by truck, and whether they are prepared if there is an accident. This Monday, she questioned the West Warwick Planning Department’s one-year extension of master plan approval to site the operation at 1600 Division St. The town Planning Board granted master plan approval, a first step in the approval process, in May of 2019.
The board granted a one-year extension of its approval. Lopez watched the hearing and was prepared to speak, but public comment was not part of the process. Nonetheless, she sent a letter to the board chair, questioning the initial approval.
She has read correspondence between MedRecycler and DEM as well as researched state health medical waste regulations. She has found that state health regulations “require that for DEM to approve any alternative technology to treat medical waste, the technology must be “proven, on the basis of thorough tests to be protective with respect to total impact on the environment, and ensure the health, safety and welfare of both facility employees and the general public.”
That has her asking how DEM is going to evaluate the MedRecycler proposal.
“If you don’t know how you’re going to test it, why would you approve it?” she asks. “Why put public health and welfare at risk?’
The “it” is pyrolysis, and the question is whether the process can effectively destroy medical waste.
As described in a fact sheet released in February by the Department of Environmental Management, “Pyrolysis is similar to incineration in that they both use high heat to break down organic materials such as cloth and plastic. It differs from incineration in that the heating is done in an anoxic (without oxygen) environment. The process produces a flammable gas that is then burned in the presence of oxygen to produce electricity.”
MedRecycler claims the pyrolysis of medical waste is safe, that it won’t release harmful gases. But that’s questioned by a growing number of area residents, with Lopez one of the leaders, who don’t buy it. With an April 14 deadline for comment approaching, DEM has ready received 600 comments, a DEM spokeswoman said Friday. “Stop medical waste” signs have mushroomed throughout nearby residential neighborhoods as well as on major roads in East Greenwich, Warwick and West Warwick. In addition to the written comments, opponents have submitted a letter with more than 1,500 signatures.
Lopez grew up in East Greenwich and graduated from East Greenwich High and URI, where she majored in accounting. She then left the state for jobs in New York City and Boston, where she worked in mutual fund operations before transitioning to technology doing business analysis/project management for asset management. Lopez has been swept into beating this project on the basis that it’s the wrong place for processing medical waste; that it is an unproven technology that is not needed and puts people at risk.
She is well suited for her role of public defender. Her unabashed concern for the community manifests itself in long, detailed emails, fearless questioning of officials, phone conversations that slide from topic to topic, and even dressing up as a bunny on Saturday to wave to motorists on Route 2 while swinging a “stop medical waste” sign.
She’s read up on medical waste, the science of pryolysis and state and federal regulations on air quality. It’s become technical and it already has become legal. The town has appealed the DEM’s issuance of an air quality permit to Superior Court, and at the judge’s direction, the parties are in arbitration.
“Do I have to go back and get a law degree to fight this?” she asks.
The Stop the Medical Waste campaign has heightened community awareness and anxiety.
“Daily I get calls, people are freaked out,” she said.
Calls to MedRecycler president Nick Campanella were not returned. The DEM spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on the application beyond what it has already been released.
Asked how DEM would evaluate a process for which it has no regulations, the spokeswoman emailed: “The application is being evaluated to determine if it meets the specific requirements of DEM’s regulations; the technology must be shown to effectively destroy pathogens in a way that is protective of human health and the environment.”
Following the closure for written comment on April 15, DEM has 90 days to render a decision. Regardless of which way it falls, West Warwick Town Planner Mark Carruolo is convinced it will be appealed. He wouldn’t be surprised to see this battle stretch out for a decade and even reach the state Supreme Court.
At this point, Lopez is committed. She’s not backing out.
She laughs recollecting the return to her hometown 14 years ago to raise a family.
“I’ve become the town vigilante,” she said.