On Thursday night, about 150 people crowded into Live Oak City Hall to express concern over a proposed biomedical waste incinerator facility in rural Suwannee County with the president of the company seeking to build it.
Some brought signs or wore stickers that said “No Incinerator.”
Retiree Mary Bridges, 74, was worried that some of the waste will escape.
“It will destroy our whole beautiful county. We don’t want it,” Bridges said.
Jerry Ellis, 77, also retired, hadn’t yet spoken to anybody who’s in favor of building this incinerator.
“It will create jobs, but at what cost?” Ellis said.
Third-grade teacher Donna McMillan, 35, feared for the health of her children and students.
“What safeguards will you put in place for children?” McMillan said.
Pennsylvania-based Integrated Waste Management Systems, Inc. (IWMS) wants to purchase 25 acres of the catalyst site near the intersection of 175th Road and 50th Street from the county for its first incinerator facility. County Commissioner Ricky Gamble organized the town hall meeting to let his constituents speak directly with IWMS president Marvin Jay Barry, a retired major general, as well as the company’s vice-president, consultant and air quality expert.
The company has presented a business plan to the county commission but has not yet officially asked to buy the land.
Barry predicts needing 61 employees of all skill levels by the end of 2014, increasing to approximately 104 jobs when the facility is complete.
However, the incineration of biomedical waste releases an array of pollutants into the air, including heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury; toxic organics like carbon monoxide; and acid gases like hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These pollutants are linked to health and environmental issues.
The proposed facility will follow new regulations passed in 2009 by the EPA that impose the strictest limits yet on the amount of these pollutants that can be released into the air.
“The EPA’s stringency of rules will minimize the health hazards,” said Russell Simpson of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Northeast District.
Some people at the meeting weren’t comforted by these stricter environmental requirements, though, because a limited amount of added air pollutants isn’t the same as none at all.
“They may be the lowest limits we’ve ever had, but it’s still a darn dirty thing to be near,” said Annette Long, president of the non-profit Save Our Suwannee, Inc., and a vocal opponent of the facility’s construction.
Long petitioned the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for more time to study the environmental effects of this facility. She originally intended to challenge the permit before discovering the company has the legal right to produce a certain amount of toxic emissions. After the deadline passed for Long to petition for a public hearing, IWMS was granted an air construction permit from the state as a minor source of hazardous air pollutants on Sept. 5.
Once built, the facility will need to demonstrate that it can meet these environmental constraints before being granted a state operations permit.
Long and others at the meeting were concerned for the health of nearby farms and livestock, as well as children and the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to health effects from cancer-causing carcinogens like dioxins. North Central Florida’s cancer mortality rate, adjusted for age, is already 28 percent higher than the rest of the state, according to the 2013 North Central Florida Cancer Report.
Dr. Ron Saff, an allergy and asthma physician and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee, has been an outspoken environmental activist on the importance of protecting Florida’s air and water quality. He said that the current legislation is not stringent enough to be truly safe.
“Many people understand the concept of why smoking is bad, and having an incinerator in one’s neighborhood is like a 40-foot-high gigantic cigarette,” Saff said. “Just like there’s no such thing as a safe cigarette, there’s no such thing as a safe incinerator.”
IWMS President Barry said the company is interested in a North Florida location due to the region’s numerous medical facilities and need for waste removal and disposal. The site’s proximity to I-10 and I-75 also make Suwannee County attractive. Last year, the company attempted to build a similar facility in Baker County, but withdrew its application after a contentious public hearing.
Thursday’s meeting quickly turned contentious during the question-and-answer session. Interruptions and applause abounded, attendees told Barry directly they didn’t want the facility there and asked whether he would stop if the people don’t want it.
“If it’s determined through the appropriate processes that the people of Suwannee County don’t want us here, we won’t be here,” Barry said.