A trash-burning plant like the recently scrapped SANDER facility probably would increase a community's rate of air pollution-related diseases and may contribute to a small number of deaths, but it is impossible to determine how large an impact the plant would have, a city panel has concluded.
A draft report considered Wednesday by the city's Quality of Life Board notes that "it is regarded as probable that SANDER can be expected to increase the morbidity rates" for diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory disorders aggravated by air pollution.
It also suggests that "SANDER may contribute to deaths in people with pre-existing cardiorespiratory disease. This effect would be small in comparison to other factors, such as smoking, but given the high prevalence of cardiorespiratory disease, even a small increase in the rate due to SANDER emissions would have considerable impact on the community."
But the report continues that "it is uncertain that this increase (in disease) will be detectable as measured by hospital admissions, emergency room visits or doctors' office appointments. Compared to the prevalence of cardiorespiratory disease and lung cancer in society, the statistical increment in disease due to SANDER would be very difficult to isolate."
"The essence of where we're at is that there isn't any way to prove that (the SANDER) plan is safe or unsafe," said Gordon Shackelford, associate dean of sciences at San Diego State University, who served on a subcommittee investigating the environmental impact of a trash-to-energy plant. "We don't know precisely how dangerous (pollutants) are, particularly in low concentrations for periods of time to large numbers of people."
New Hampshire-based Signal Corp., the firm that had been planning to build the $400-million San Diego Energy Recovery Project facility in Kearny Mesa, abruptly aborted the project Aug. 12 after a $5-million investment because of what it claimed was a lack of support from the San Diego City Council.
But because its certification application to the California Energy Commission is suspended, not withdrawn, the project could be reactivated by the company or another firm.
A proposition on the Nov. 3 ballot would set environmental standards so stringent that a SANDER-type plant could not be built.
The Quality of Life Board, a panel of academics that is pressed into service periodically, is winding up a yearlong look at the project conducted with the assistance of physicians and health specialists. Its draft report recommends that the design originally suggested for the SANDER plant be substantially modified to prevent the release of hazardous pollutants.
Looming Landfill Crisis
It also urges that the city tackle its looming landfill crisis by adopting alternatives such as recycling, reducing trash output, composting and "chipping" of brush and greenery into small bits, in addition to a waste-burning plant. But those alternatives will not reduce the city's waste total by more than about 25%, necessitating the need for a trash-burning plant, the panel concluded.
The report suggests that "we look at waste management as a system and that we direct resources toward what I would call the low-tech options: recycling, source reduction and volume reduction," said Diane Takvorian, a panel member and executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition.
The panel criticized the city for being "unreceptive to outside recycling and waste diversion proposals" besides its "minor chipping effort."
Substantial modifications should be included in any trash-burning plant constructed, the panel recommended. To reduce harmful metal pollutants that would be released from any trash-burning plant's stack, the panel recommended removing car and household batteries from trash by requiring a countywide deposit on them.
To reduce chlorinated plastics in trash, the panel suggests banning plastic milk containers.
It also suggested that San Diego Gas & Electric voluntarily install devices to reduce emissions from its stacks or be required to do so.