Debate grows over benefits, risks of medical-waste treatment project

WEST WARWICK – Jobs, tax dollars and other economic benefits are pitted against potential health, safety and environmental risks tied to a proposed medical-waste treatment plant here in a growing debate that state and local officials must now decide. 

For opponents, including dozens who lined up during a March 15 virtual public hearing on MedRecycler-RI’s proposed 48,000-square-foot medical-waste treatment facility on Division Road, it’s an easy decision.

“We should not let profit motives of an out-of-state developer endanger our communities,” said Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-East Greenwich. “These projects are bad news and don’t belong in our state.”

But the company, owned by New Jersey-based Sun Pacific Holding Corp., has received some initial support from the state and host community. And its owner insists the fears of local opponents about a largely unproven technology are unwarranted.

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Nicholas Campanella, president and CEO of Sun Pacific, insisted in an email the company is “determined to be a good and safe neighbor in Rhode Island.” He added the state’s “business-friendly” reputation is a key reason his company chose to locate its project here.

Campanella says the project will bring 100 construction and maintenance positions, plus 30 permanent jobs once up and running and $4.75 million in tax revenue for West Warwick over the course of its 20-year lease – mostly through tangible property taxes paid on the equipment.

The company as part of its 2019 application to the Rhode Island Industrial Facilities Corp., an arm of R.I. Commerce Corp. that acts as the local development authority for the state, also supplied detailed financial statements and economic impact projections, according to Bill Ash, R.I. Commerce’s managing director and treasurer for the industrial facilities corporation. Ash declined, however, to give details or share copies of the financial statements because he said they are confidential.

But he disputes the suggestion of some project opponents that the project is a similar risk for the state as was the failed 38 Studios LLC deal. Unlike the $75 million in moral obligation bonds that left the state on the hook when Curt Schilling’s video game company went bankrupt in 2012, the state faces no repercussions for bonds issued for MedRecycler if the business fails. Instead, the bondholders – private investment banks or equity funds, most likely would bear the risk if the project does not pan out, Ash said.

The Industrial Facilities Corp.’s preliminary approval for $17 million in bond funding has expired, but Campanella said in an email he plans to reapply, which will trigger the same review process anew, according to Ash.

Asked if he considered the project beneficial for the state, Ash said, “provided the technology is vetted properly, and works and is safe, why not?” 

The West Warwick Planning Board approved the project’s general concept plan in 2019, though it will weigh in again on a more detailed plan based on its compliance with zoning, usage and town master plans after the DEM completes its review, said Town Planner Mark Carruolo.

Jerry Petros, an attorney representing M-F Athletic, a sports equipment seller based out of the industrial building where MedRecycler has leased space, voiced concern over the project during the DEM hearing on March 15.

Petros questioned whether the “half-inch of wallboard” separating the two company operations was enough to protect against potential safety hazards from spills or other mishaps during waste treatment.

An attorney representing Playground Prep, a preschool next door to the proposed plant, also voiced safety and health-related objections during the hearing.

A poll on the project posted after the hearing, on March 19, has so far generated nearly 2,000 responses.

The biggest unanswered question right now is how much review the state has done of the process that would be used to burn up to 70 tons of blood, needles and other medical human and animal waste that would be shipped in daily. The waste would be shredded, dried and treated at high heat using a process known as pyrolysis, which breaks down the waste into gas that can be burned for electricity.

The Department of Environmental Management has granted the project a “minor source” air permit but has declined comment while it completes its overall review.

Campanella insists the anaerobic treatment of medical waste through pyrolysis is an environmentally friendly process that does not create the harmful byproducts of typical incineration. But others remain skeptical. Pyrolysis is common in treating plastic, but has only been used to treat medical waste in one other project in the United States – a plant in New Mexico that has operated at a smaller scale. It’s unclear, however, if this plant is still operating. The company that has operated it did not immediately respond this week to several requests for comment.

Kevin Budris, a staff attorney with environmental advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation, sees no reason for the state to pursue what he sees as an unproven technology. 

“Growing the medical profession [in Rhode Island] does not need to result in an increase in medical waste,” Budris said, naming reuse, sterilization and recycling as alternative, safer ways to dispose of medical waste he says the industry is already moving toward.

The state has two other medical waste facilities, in Woonsocket and at Rhode Island Hospital’s Providence campus. Both were approved more than two decades ago and don’t use pyrolysis.

Budris also pointed to studies by groups such as Tellus Institute and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance suggesting that composting and recycling create five and 20 times, respectively, as many jobs per ton of waste compared to burning it.

Valverde earlier this month introduced a bill, which has a companion in the House, that would stop the state from granting licenses or permits to any high-heat waste processing facilities, including those that use pyrolysis. 

While motivated in large part by MedRecycler’s application, Valverde was unsure the legislation, if approved, could stop this particular project; it depends on when the bill passes related to DEM’s pending decision on the license application, which is expected by mid-July.

“If [Valverde’s] bill was to become law, it would not deprive Rhode Island of any meaningful economic opportunities, because zero-waste, truly green alternatives … are far safer and generate more jobs at a lower cost than high-heat facilities,” Budris said.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at