Plan for medical waste plant draws charge of racism

February 20, 1998

HARRISBURG (AP) - A Greencastle, Pa., firm's plan to build the East Coast's largest medical-waste processing plant near a predominantly black housing project in Harrisburg has prompted civil-rights leaders to accuse city leaders of "environmental racism."

"They don't put these things in upper-class neighborhoods," Charles Chivis, president of the local NAACP chapter, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Proponents, who include two city councilors with financial ties to the company that wants to build the facility, insist it would not endanger the health of its neighbors and that the criticism is unwarranted.

"We're not going to bring an environmentally risky project into our midst - we've got enough problems," said Mayor Stephen Reed. "I would invite anyone who has a critical review or any technical question to come forward and ask it. I have no problem with that."

Greencastle-based Bio-Oxidation Inc. is seeking a state environmental permit to process 400 tons of medical waste daily at a site two miles from the Capitol and a few hundred feet from government-owned apartments that house 915 people. The Department of Environmental Protection has said the plan appears to be environmentally sound, but has posed a series of questions about security, plant operations and other matters to the company.


Plans call for truckloads of boxed dirty needles, chemotherapy refuse and other medical waste from throughout the state and the mid-Atlantic region to be delivered to a now-vacant building near the state farm show complex. There, the waste would be sterilized and trucked to the city's aging trash incinerator.

City officials, eager to promote economic development, courted Bio-Oxidation to locate the facility in Harrisburg. The city housing authority agreed to waive a state environmental rule barring such facilities within 300 feet of an occupied dwelling, and the city council approved a reduced-interest $250,000 loan for the project.

Two council members, one who is black and one who is Hispanic, have worked for the company as paid consultants on unrelated matters. Both Richard K. House, who plans to join the company next year as a full-time salesman, and Frank DeGarcia, whom the company pays $2,000 a month as an international consultant, abstained when the loan came up for a vote and said they had cleared their actions with the city solicitor.

"Because I'm on city council, does that preclude me from obtaining the American dream to live comfortably?" asked House, who had been unemployed.

Service on the Harrisburg council is a part-time job that pays $10,000 a year.

Residents of the housing project next to the proposed site are divided over the project.

"If it's not going to harm any kids, I don't have a problem with it," said LaShawn Addison. "We need the jobs."

"Why can't they put it in an open field somewhere?" asked another resident, Charles Allen.

The Harrisburg controversy echoes one in Chester, which is home to a smaller medical-waste processing plant and four other waste facilities. Last month, a federal appeals court cleared the way for a group of Chester residents to pursue a lawsuit against the DEP for allegedly discriminatory permit decisions.

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