Gasification Bill Reignites R.I. Incinerator Debate

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Concerns about incineration are back, with a bill that seeks to approve gasification facilities in Rhode Island.

Last year, a swift and sudden outcry stopped a woody biomass incinerator project from moving forward.

In previous years, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), manager of the Central Landfill in Johnston, has unsuccessfully sought permission from the General Assembly to at least study the concept of incineration as an alternative to landfilling.

The latest effort calls for approval to build plastic gasification plants. Plastic gasification is the process of converting plastics, or polymers, back to the their raw materials: fossil fuels and chemicals. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has been promoting this legislation around the country as a form of recycling and power generation. Three states, including Florida, have passed legislation allowing polymer gasification plants.

Environmentalists say gasification has failed for decades to show any benefits.

“What we know about these facilities is that they are polluting. The are very expensive. They are energy inefficient. They destroy resources that could and should be recycled,” Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said during a Feb. 28 House hearing for H5448.

The bill excludes some plastics from mandatory recycling laws and exempts gasification plants from being classified as waste management facilities or incinerators. The ACC argues that the process of heating and breaking down the plastics, called pyrolysis, creates valuable liquid industrial fuels, chemicals, waxes, and lubricants.

Elmer said gasification plants shouldn’t be excluded from the state’s ban on incinerators, because the emissions are worse than those from traditional trash incinerators, often referred to as waste-to-energy facilities. Heating the plastics and pulling out the raw gases and chemical release dioxins, lead, arsenic, mercury, and other pollutants linked to asthma and cancer. The emissions also include carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Johnathan Berard state director of Rhode Island Clean Water Action said the bill is a ploy to lift the ban on incinerators and justify the manufacturing of more plastic packaging and materials. Berard said plastic waste reduction should occur by finding alternative materials to plastics not through “end-of-pipe solutions.”

The bill is also opposed by the Environment Council of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Joan Milas, the Rhode Island lobbyists for the ACC, said gasification will help alleviate the need for more space at the Central Landfill. She noted that Rep. Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, and Sen. Frank Lombardo, D-Johnston, the sponsors for the House and Senate versions of the bill, are scheduled to meet March 20 with Joe Raposa, executive director of RIRRC, to discuss gasification.

“We’re helping to help the landfill and at least do what we can to encourage the discussion,” Milas said.

The bill was held for further study, as most bills are at the first hearing. The Senate version of the bill (S408) has yet to receive a hearing.