LA JOLLA — On the eve of a federal environmental hearing on GA Technologies' proposal to test an experimental hazardous-waste burner on Torrey Pines Mesa, a small group of skeptics and critics of the plan have begun mobilizing an opposition movement.
Bright yellow flyers have circulated near the downtown La Jolla post office, rallying passers-by to attend the hearing set for tonight. The La Jolla community planning group voted Tuesday to oppose the burner and reconsider only if GA prepares an environmental impact report.
Meanwhile, an environmental group active on toxics issues adopted the same position, and asked the San Diego City Council to have the city begin regulating waste facilities. A council committee initially approved the proposal, which will go this month to the full council.
"We don't know what is going to come out of this test-burn facility," said David Tompkins, president of La Jollans Inc., the planning group. "We are concerned about emissions and we are also somewhat concerned about waste material being brought into a heavily populated area for the purpose of testing."
GA, a high-technology research and development firm, has been testing the burner on smaller amounts of waste in La Jolla over the past year. Now it has asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for permission to test samples of wastes from firms contemplating buying GA incinerators.
Under the proposed EPA permit, the subject of tonight's hearing, GA could burn wastes on 365 operating days or over five calendar years, whichever is shorter. It could burn up to 438,000 gallons of liquid waste over the full life of the permit.
The permit would also contain an hourly maximum limiting GA to burning no more than 50 gallons of liquid or 500 pounds of solid wastes an hour. The permit would include limits on the types of wastes burned and on emissions into the air.
"We need alternatives to dumping our hazardous waste into the ground," said John Hart, an EPA official working on the permit. "Just as important, these alternatives must be done properly. That's the aim of the permit, to make sure they do it the best way possible."
Last Tuesday, La Jollans Inc. held a special meeting to hear presentations from GA and the Environmental Health Coalition, which has doubts about the plan. After hearing both sides, the group voted to oppose the incinerator at least until GA prepares an environmental impact report.
An EIR, which would predict the environmental effects of the project, is not required for the research, development and demonstration permit EPA is considering. Members of La Jollans Inc. and the Coalition would like GA to do one voluntarily, in order to provide the information and as a show of good faith.
But GA considers an EIR unnecessary and expensive, a time-consuming effort that would delay putting its waste-disposal technique into use. GA spokeswoman Nicki Hobson said the company has the results of past tests which prove the burner operates well within federal and state pollution guidelines.
"We believe that we have experimental data that have demonstrated that there is negligible impact on the environment from our operation," said Hobson. "In our mind, that kind of data is much more reassuring than the hypothetical study that an EIR is."
She added, "The whole idea of a research, development and demonstration permit is to try to help people who are developing alternative technologies for hazardous waste disposal get those tested and out into use. And because it is a demonstration kind of thing, not for commercial use, the need for an EIR is waived."
Environmental concerns raised by La Jollans Inc., the coalition and individuals in La Jolla center on pollution from the incinerator, transportation of hazardous wastes into the community and the risks of operating such a facility in a populous area.
Although GA states that emissions are "negligible," skeptics express concern about the small amounts that may be released. They also question the company's ability to predict what will be in those emissions, when the incinerator will handle a wide variety of wastes.
"Sometimes very small quantities of very toxic materials can affect the population," said Dr. Cedric Garland, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of community and family medicine at UC San Diego, who said he had not had an opportunity to study the proposal closely but was opposed to the principle of incineration. "What they might consider a very small amount might be large in terms of potential health effects over time. There are a lot of unknowns involved."
As for GA's position that its emissions meet regulatory standards, Garland said, "Federal and state standards are usually many years behind epidemiological findings because the process of putting them into place is cumbersome. So from a scientific viewpoint, that is not reassuring."