The Youngstown City Council approved a resolution on Wednesday night opposing an “advanced recycling” plant that would have used a process called pyrolysis to burn old tires to make steam for heating and cooling downtown buildings.
The unanimous, 7-0 vote on the nonbinding measure sent an unequivocal message to SOBE Thermal Energy Systems that significant questions remain regarding its technology, a zero or very-low-oxygen chemical process that would turn shredded tires into a gas that would be burned to produce the steam.
Advocates insist pyrolysis, a type of what the chemical industry calls “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, is not incineration, but critics argue that’s a distinction without much of a difference. Often described by its supporters as environmentally sustainable, environmental advocates consider pyrolysis to be high-heat, energy-intensive manufacturing with a large carbon footprint that is mostly used to just make new fossil fuels.
Amid a global plastics crisis, fights over pyrolysis have broken out globally—from the United Nations, considering technical guidelines for the Basel Convention on the management of hazardous waste, to Congress and U.S. statehouses, the Federal Trade Commission and city councils like the one in Youngstown.
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The Youngstown resolution objected to the location of the new plant, which would be close to “density populated neighborhoods, a hospital, jail, schools and churches.” These would all be “in the crosshairs when something goes wrong with the pyrolysis process,” and pose a safety risk to residents, workers, firefighters and the community. It cited dangerous fires that occurred at a Brightmark plastics pyrolysis plant in Indiana, and also objected to pollutants that would be emitted, including particulates and toxic chemicals.
“We think it is a big win,” said Lynn Anderson, a retired graphic artist who has helped lead local opposition through a loose knit group, SOBE Concerned Citizens of Youngstown. “It says, ‘This is in our community where people live and do business, and it’s far too dangerous.’ But there is a lot more work to be done.”
Silverio Caggiano, who retired last year as a battalion chief with the Youngstown Fire Department and served for 18 years on a statewide committee of first responders working to safeguard Ohio from hazardous waste and terrorism threats, was uncertain earlier this summer whether the council would take a strong position against pyrolysis, but was pleased to see councilmembers did this week.
“What I feel turned the tide was East Palestine,” Caggianno said, referencing the Norfolk Southern Railway chemical disaster in February, about 20 miles away in East Palestine, Ohio. “Everybody got to see that disaster, and we’d have some of those same chemicals” with SOBE, he added.
In Youngstown, SOBE removed a century-old coal-burner, replacing it with a gas turbine inside a truck trailer to produce steam. But the company is now seeking an environmental permit to construct and operate a pyrolysis plant that would use up to 88 tons of shredded tires a day as fuel. Tires today can contain as much as 24 percent synthetic polymers, a type of plastic.
SOBE owner David Ferro did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In July, he told Inside Climate News that his $55 million project was misunderstood by some members of the community, and that it would be an environmental benefit for a blighted block of Youngstown.
“Let’s clean this disastrous area up,” he said. “And let’s bring in a new technology that can enable us to clean our environment while producing clean burning energy at the same time, enabling us to provide lower-cost energy to our community.”
While the resolution spoke to what the council believes is the inappropriate location of such an industrial facility in such a central location, it stopped short of specifically making an argument put forward by opponents who say SOBE would need to obtain a zoning change to allow for a new, more intensive industrial land use.
Still, the council president, Thomas Hetrick, said the strong opposition signals any proposed zoning change would likely not be viewed favorably by the council, which he said would have the final say over any proposed zoning changes.
“The resolution was a good first step,” Hetrick said, even if resolutions are more like proclamations. “We do resolutions for the Italian man of the year in Youngstown,” he said. “They are not enforceable by ordinance, but it was good for council to take a side and come out against this and the 7-0 vote shows strong support.”
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Hetrick said he is still unclear where the city’s legal staff stands on the zoning question, but Mayor Jamal Tito Brown has said he’s opposed to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed permit for the facility.
The city’s law director, Jeff Limbian, did not return an email seeking comment, and a clerk in his office said he was not available to talk Thursday afternoon.
“The zoning issue is critical,” said Teresa Mills, an organizer and former executive director with the Buckeye Environmental Network, a nonprofit fighting the proposal. “That’s going to be about the only way it will ever be stopped because we know the Ohio EPA will issue the permit because there is no legal reason for them not to,” she said.
Anderson said her group sought its own legal opinion from a law clinic at Case Western Reserve University, which concluded a new pyrolysis plant would violate existing zoning.
That’s consistent with Hetrick’s understanding. “The argument I have made, and others have made, is that SOBE cannot locate (a pyrolysis plant) in the current zoning, which is a mixed-use, community zone.” Hetrick said.
Next, he said, he’d like to see the council pass a temporary moratorium on waste pyrolysis operations within the city limits, to give the council and the administration time to study the issue more thoroughly. “If we want to ban or restrict (pyrolysis) in certain areas, a moratorium gives us time to think through those issues,” he said.