Concerns about pollution released from a proposed plant that will melt plastic, and possibly tires and medical waste at E. 79th and St. Clair turned out a vocal group of residents of Cleveland's east side last night.
Akron-based Vadxx Electric already has Ohio EPA’s approval to melt materials down to crude oil and annually emit 22 tons of carbon monoxide, 5 tons of nitrous oxide, 0.9 tons of particulates (soot), 5 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 1.3 to the negative 5 cubic meters of dioxin at the Cleveland site.
It led to a barrage of questions about the effects to human health from air pollutants known and undisclosed.
Where does the plume travel? South Euclid Councilman Marty Gelfand wondered.
Company officials said there should be little cause for concern. First, OEPA classified their operation as a minor emitter—or less than 100 tons of pollution per year. The process of melting in a closed vessel captures most of the pollution, they add. And a scrubber on their smoke stack will catch most of the rest, they said. They don’t anticipate emitting serious carcinogens found in plastic such as dioxin.
They compare their smoke stack to a chimney at home for a hot water tank.
That’s an unfair characterization, says former Cleveland Division of Air Quality Environmental Engineer, Larry Cornett.
“Carcinogenic pollutants are not in the same matrix of pollutants as a gas boiler,” Cornett said. “I’ve seen many syn(thetic) fuel facilities that have scaled up and failed and had to have emergency releases.”
Vadxx assured, their process is safe. In the last five years, Vadxx developed the technology at their R&D facility in Akron. They were admitted to a NASA tech incubator, and secured $1.5 million from Rockwell Automation, a major engineering firm based in Cleveland. Working with a team of engineers from Rockwell, the company scaled up its pilot to 350 times its size in order to demonstrate its ability to operate at production scale. The Cleveland plant would be a 50:1 scale up from their pilot.
While company officials claim they will not melt tires and medical waste, environmental groups and residents are concerned because their air pollution permit allows them to do so.
“We would like something in writing,” said a woman who identified herself as a neighborhood resident. “This is wishful thinking until you put it down on paper. We would hope you’d have another forum that documents the emissions.”
Jim Braun, the Cleveland Division of Air Quality staffer who reviewed the company’s air permit, said a public notice of the draft permit was released in September, 2012. It received no comments. He added that his division would test the plume when the facility comes online to confirm the company accounted for all the pollutants.
The gap between no comments and the evening’s outpouring of concern led to questions about the effectiveness of the public notification system.
“I think that we need to take a step back,” said Gelfand, who was legal counsel for Rep. Dennis Kucinich for more than a decade.
Others voiced concerns about the proximity to homes and to Michael R. White elementary school.
Cleveland Director of Economic Development Tracey Nichols noted that 250 permits for minor emitters were granted in Cuyahoga County in the last 24 months. Vadxx CEO Jim Garrett added that, “minor emitters are all around us. From hospitals to dry cleaners.”
A resident responded to Ms. Nichols with a question: “Would you want this in your neighborhood?”
“I’m a resident of Cleveland, too,” Nichols said, “and yes, I would.”
“Vadxx wants to be a good neighbor,” Garrett added. “We want to bring international attention to Cleveland.”
The plant would add 17 jobs, and an undisclosed amount of back office staff. Garrett expects the back office staff to grow as they sell the Vadxx technology to other cities. While the technology, known as pyrolysis, is relatively new to the U.S., operations in the U.K and Ireland rely on it to produce crude oil for sale. Vadxx has signed contracts with oil refiners in Houston for the oil produced in Cleveland, he said.
Cleveland councilman Jeff Johnson managed to strike a balance between hearing concerns and supporting the plant. At one point, he gave voice to the mounting frustration over the cost-benefit of 17 new jobs and a new source of pollution.
“I bet if this was more like 117 jobs we might feel better about this,” he said.
Akshai Singh of Sierra Club voiced concern about high incidents of asthma among children in the area which is also very close to a now-mothballed CPP coal-fired power plant at E. 72nd and the Shoreway.
Local activist Susan Miller also wondered how sustainable is a system that “seems to have no limit to the air pollution permits it will grant. Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County is in non-compliance with federal air quality standards and you’re crying about that. This is death valley.”
Johnson promised to investigate all of the concerns voiced at the meeting. “The focus is the pollution. Is this 22 tons acceptable to you? Is this something that folks want?”