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Already dealing with chromium 6, some in Paramount oppose medical waste facility

Already rattled by high levels of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium in their city, residents of Paramount on Wednesday evening implored regional air regulators not to permit a local medical waste treatment plant to expand its operations to seven days a week.

"We don’t want this facility in Paramount," environmental advocate Lisa Lappin said at a community meeting in the South L.A. city just north of Long Beach. "And the reason is, we have already too many companies generating these same types of toxins."

But officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District said the facility complies with the agency’s rules and regulations, and the president of the company that runs the plant said it won't add to Paramount's pollution.

The facility is "by far the cleanest medical waste site on the planet," said Bob Shaw, president of Medical Waste Services.

Medical Waste Services has run the plant on a temporary research permit for the past two years. Now it's seeking permission to operate in Paramount permanently.

Under the research permit, the AQMD estimates the company has treated up to 9,000 pounds of waste a day three days a week. Initially the firm asked the agency to approve the treatment of 10,000 pounds a day seven days a week.

But out of "an abundance of caution," Medical Waste Services revised the request downward to 3,000 pounds a day seven days a week, "to ensure that no further [California Environmental Quality Act] requirements could potentially be triggered," according to the AQMD's presentation at Wednesday's meeting.

Medical Waste Services is located about 700 feet from a home and just under 1,000 feet from Howard Tanner elementary school.

The operation emits some toxic compounds, but AQMD officials said the unit’s emissions are far below the agency’s cancer threshold. The facility’s cancer risk of .58 in a million people is dwarfed by that posed by typical gas stations, at five in a million, and typical dry cleaners, at 17.5 in a million.

That provided little comfort to environmental advocate Lappin.

"If this were the only company in Paramount, then that might be OK," she said. "It’s no more dangerous than going to a gas station. But we don’t spend the whole entire day in the gas station. The children spend the whole day in the classroom."

Most medical waste generated in the state is treated by steam sterilization. But under state law, certain types of waste - including vials, bags and IV tubes that used to contain chemotherapy drugs, body tissue and pharmaceutical waste - must by treated by incineration or an approved high heat method.

Medical Waste Services utilizes a pyrolysis chamber. Pyrolysis involves breaking materials down with high temperatures inside a special chamber; while incineration releases heat, pyrolysis absorbs it, according to the AQMD.

The Paramount plant is one of just two facilities in the state that utilize a pyrolysis unit to destroy medical waste. The other facility is Aemerge RedPak Services in the Mojave Desert city of Hesperia. There are currently no commercial medical waste incinerators in the state.

The California Department of Public Health has said there’s a need for more of the type of facility operated by Medical Waste Services, stating, "the current pyrolysis units in California do not have adequate capacity to treat all of this kind of waste generated in the state."

The air district is considering Medical Waste Services’ permit at the same time that it’s monitoring emissions of hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, from a number of metal processing facilities in the area. Two Paramount metal plants are already under AQMD orders to curtail emissions, and the agency is seeking an order against another facility just across the border in Long Beach. Meanwhile, L.A. County's public health department has issued similar directives to four more Paramount metal plants, although some have challenged the county's findings.

Lappin asked officials to take this cumulative health burden into account when making their final decision on Medical Waste Services.

"We don’t have a regulatory framework to address cumulative impacts; nobody has in the United States that I’m aware of," replied Dr. Laki Tisopulos, AQMD’s deputy executive officer for engineering and permitting. He said the agency examines each facility individually and determines whether it stays below emissions and risk thresholds.

The operation of the pyrolysis unit reduces emissions associated with transporting this type of waste out of state, said Angela Shibata, AQMD’s senior air quality engineer.

In 2016, the state generated approximately 125 million pounds of medical waste; about 13 million pounds were sent out of state for treatment, according to the state health department.

"I would put more pollution in the air if I drove the medical waste from here to the desert than I would treating medical waste here in the city of Paramount," said Medical Waste Services President Shaw.

Air district officials will review public comments from the meeting before making a final decision on the facility.