Technological watch

Encina wins legal challenge on Pennsylvania chemical recycling plans

Chemical recycling firm Encina is praising a Pennsylvania state board's decision to dismiss a legal challenge to its proposed $1.1 billion facility to turn waste plastics into new chemicals, saying it amounted to an attempt to "stall" the plant.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board July 14 ruled against a challenge brought by the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, which said state officials erred in declaring that the Encina Development Group LLC plant 55 miles north of Harrisburg should be exempt from solid waste permits.

Encina, which announced the facility in 2022, said the EHB decision is a win because it rejects delaying tactics against what appears to be the first chemical recycling plant in the state, in Northumberland, Pa.

"This decision is meaningful for our industry and us because some special interest groups are using tactics like this to attempt to stall and/or prevent companies from bringing these technologies forward," said Alison Jahn, chief communications officer for The Woodlands, Texas-based Encina.

Encina argues that the plant — which will use waste plastics as a feedstock to make chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylenes and propylene that can then be used back in new plastics or in other products — is an important investment in building a more circular economy.

But CAC and some local residents said the facility would be a significant source of harmful emissions and said such plants can produce hazardous ash as a byproduct that must be shipped off site.

"Encina is trying to fool the public into believing that its unproven plastics processing technology is clean 'recycling,' Joseph Otis Minott, CAC executive director and chief counsel, said last year when CAC brought its legal action.

The EHB's ruling centers more around administrative procedures than the merits of the technology, but it is part of a national debate over how to regulate chemical recycling, or advanced recycling as some industry groups refer to it.

Since 2017, Pennsylvania and more than 20 other states have passed legislation supported by the plastics industry to change state laws to regulate the technology as manufacturing rather than as solid waste management facilities.

The CAC argued that the first phase of the Encina operation should still be covered by solid waste permits because it only uses traditional mechanical processes for handling solid waste, even if the second phase uses the chemical recycling processes.

The EHB decision turned on an administrative question of whether letters from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to the company amounted to a decision that CAC could appeal.

The board ruled that the letters did not represent a final agency decision that could be appealed but instead were DEP officials offering their interpretations of the three-year-old law.

Encina had argued that under a revised 2020 Pennsylvania law governing chemical recycling, the facility does not need a formal DEP decision for the "advanced recycling exemption" to apply.

"We find that the department's letter to Encina is in community with other situations where we have held that department communications are not appealable because they merely offer the department's interpretation of the law that an activity meets or does not meet a statutory or regulatory definition," the EHB said.

"The documentation from Clean Air Council suggests that Encina's facility may be the first advanced recycling facility to be proposed in Pennsylvania," EHB said. "It does not strike us as unusual that the department and Encina would have a dialogue about whether or not Encina met the definition of such a facility and whether or not a permit was necessary under the Solid Waste Management Act."

The EHB said Encina still needs air quality permits and other regulatory approvals outside of the Solid Waste Management Act.

Jahn said the company expects the first phase construction to begin later this year or in the first quarter of 2024, and she said the company rejects the CAC characterization of the construction as coming in two phases as being important for regulatory decisions.

Publication date: 24/07/2023

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Last update: 2022-01-31