LA JOLLA — Plans for an experimental hazardous waste incinerator on Torrey Pines Mesa were questioned Monday night at a public hearing that attracted about 100 people, many of them concerned about the size and location of the plant and the possibility of unanticipated effects on human health.
Most of those who spoke at the hearing wanted to know about emissions from the 30-foot stack on the incinerator, which GA Technologies intends to operate on its property off Genesee Avenue and North Torrey Pines Road. They wanted to know if there were emissions that could not be measured and if it is wise to have the emissions monitored by contractors hired by GA.
Others asked about the danger of earthquakes, GA's liability insurance, and what it would cost the firm to move its plant to a less-populated area. Some suggested that the plant and the terms of its proposed permit made it a production facility, not merely a research plant.
"We know very little about the effects," said Dr. Ruth Heifetz, a physician and assistant professor at UC San Diego. "Most of the things that will be or could be coming out, there are no standards for."
Officials of GA and the Environmental Protection Agency responded that the incinerator and its ability to meet federal standards have been proven in past tests. They said the system and its emissions would be subject to "comprehensive monitoring and controls" and to automatic shut-off if any regulations were violated.
"Everything will be monitored," said John Hart of the EPA. "Everything will be controlled."
Company and government officials said the building was built to withstand earthquakes, and it would cost $5 million to $10 million and take several years to set up the test plant in another area. They said the incinerator is for research only, and GA's liability insurance would cover it for up to $1 million per incident and $2 million per year.
"EPA believes incineration of hazardous waste is an effective alternative to land disposal," said Larry Bowerman, of EPA. "It is not the only alternative. But it is one alternative."
Kerry Dance, president of GA, commented sarcastically at the end of the hearing on the negative reception the proposal had received. "I really like the attitude: ' . . . Not here, not in my backyard and I don't want to hear any of the facts,' " he said.
"We're talking about things that are all around us because of the society we are in," Dance added.
The aim of the hearing, which lasted more than three hours at University Towne Centre, was to take public comment on the permit EPA is preparing for GA. The public comment period remains open through Sept. 22.
GA, a high-technology research and development firm on John Jay Hopkins Drive in La Jolla, has been testing the experimental burner over the past year under a more-limited EPA permit. Now the firm hopes to try it out on samples of waste from firms interested in buying burners of their own.
Under the proposed EPA permit, GA could burn wastes on 365 operating days or over five calendar years, whichever is shorter.
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 emissions into the air.
The equipment, called a circulating bed combustor, is described as an advanced treatment technique for burning combustible material. The principal byproduct will be an ash that GA officials say will be non-toxic.
GA has stated that the types of waste to be tested may include contaminated soils, solvents and sludges. It predicts that it would treat only about half of the amount of waste allowed and would conduct burns only several times a month.
Until very recently, there had been little opposition to the proposal. For a year, GA had carefully and methodically presented its idea privately to community leaders, citizens' groups and the press.
But last week, La Jollans Inc., the community planning organization, voted to oppose the plan, at least until GA completes an environmental impact report. The Environmental Health Coalition voted last month to take the same position and began mobilizing residents to attend the hearing.
GA has argued that an EIR is unnecessary since past test runs with the burner show that it can operate within federal and state environmental guidelines.