A company that cleans hazardous medical waste is seeking to open a new facility in Spartanburg. However, its untested new form of treating the waste is being criticized by some environmental experts.
TreatMed plans to use a process known as autoclaving, which shreds the waste and uses high-pressure steam to sterilize it. The finished product is then safe enough to be driven to a landfill. The process is often used by hospitals to treat small amounts of waste, but has never been used on a large-scale basis in the United States.
The company touts the method as good for the environment, because it does not require burning the waste in an incinerator. “There is no pollution involved,” TreatMed President David Squalli said, “It’s as green as it gets.”
The company, the American subsidiary of French medical engineering firm ECODAS, is seeking a permit from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to operate the facility.
However, some residents are concerned. The company plans to handle up to 23 million pounds of “infectious waste” every year at the facility, according to its proposal to DHEC. “Infectious waste” consists of blood, needles and other equipment, and identifiable human body parts.
Environmental lawyer Gary Poliakoff is opposing the project on behalf of some area residents. He says autoclaving has never been used in this country for such large amounts of waste. “This proposed method is not permitted yet anywhere in the United States,” he said, “It’s permitted in a handful of other countries around the world, but not the United States.”
TreatMed has gotten permission from Spartanburg County, the local sewer & water district, and DHEC’s air quality division to build the facility. It is still seeking approval from DHEC to treat the medical waste.
Poliakoff said Spartanburg already has one site for medical waste and he’s afraid most of the new material will come from out of state. “We’re known as the dumping ground for the nation for all categories of waste,” he said, “The reason we’re known for that is valid.”
He said DHEC is not addressing the problem of transporting the waste to the site. Poliakoff said he worried some bacteria or viruses had the risk of getting into the atmosphere while it was being moved from the truck to the facility. However, Squalli dismissed those worries, saying the material is kept in sealed containers and there is little risk of pathogens escaping. He added the water used in the autoclave process would also be safely sterilized.
Spartanburg is not the company’s first choice for the facility. A previous location in Georgia was voted down in 2009. Squalli said that was due to a public outcry from people who did not understand what the facility would do.
TreatMed hopes to build the center near the Cannon’s Campground neighborhood. That area is home to 70 families currently considering a legal case against former polyester fiber manufacturer Hoechst Celanese. They accuse the company of illegally dumping chemicals on the site, they claim led to a cluster of cancer cases in the following years. Some residents are notably hesitant to support a new disposal facility, as a result. However, Squalli says most of the feedback from residents has been positive.
The public can comment on the facility through November 13. If the permit is approved, an appeal can still be filed for the next 15 days after the decision.