By Justine McDaniel

STAFF WRITER

At a rowdy public meeting Tuesday night, numerous residents spoke out to oppose - and a smaller number to support - a proposal to open a hazardous-waste-treatment plant in Bucks County.

The crowd of about 300 shouted, booed, and cheered, repeatedly yelling at one another and at speakers from Elcon, the Israeli company proposing the facility. Critics have raised concerns that the plant - which would be in Falls Township, one mile from the Delaware River - could contaminate the river, a major drinking-water source.

More than 30 people from surrounding areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey spoke during a public-comment section during the presentation, held in a conference room at the Sheraton hotel in Langhorne.

Elcon representatives said their plan to treat 150,000 tons of wastewater per year uses a process called thermal oxidation, which they said was a more eco-friendly alternative to the more common methods of incineration or deep well injection.

"We don't create the wastewater," said Rengarajan Ramesh, an Elcon representative. "We treat it."

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection approved the first phase of the project siting in November. The company faces a yearlong approval process for the second phase, and other local and state approvals.

The proposed site, in the Keystone Industrial Port Complex, is the former home of the U.S. Steel operation. Environmental advocates say it is only a half mile from a smaller creek.

Protesters held signs and wore buttons; a few sported hazmat suits or face masks. They pressed company representatives for details about how they would deal with a chemical spill if an accident were to occur and in what landfills the company planned to dump solids and salts.

Those opposing the plan said they did not want the facility to be located so close to the Delaware River. Citing the recent water-contamination crises in Flint, Mich., and West Virginia's Elk River, speaker after speaker asked about health and safety, urged the crowd to fight the proposal, and voiced suspicions about the plan.

About one-third of the crowd was made up of supporters who cheered for Elcon. Many were union workers who held signs reading "Jobs for Bucks County residents."

"If this process were not safe and environmentally friendly, we would not endorse it," said Bernard Griggs, speaking for the Philadelphia Building Trades Council.

The plan will create 150 to 200 temporary construction jobs and 55 permanent jobs, Elcon said.

In a 10-minute exchange that had dozens shouting and jeering, the opposition asked how the company would provide drinking water in the event of a spill.

"Well, our plan is for that not to happen," replied an Elcon representative.

That drew an uproar from the crowd. "Answer her question!" people yelled as the speakers tried to move to the next question. Eventually, the company said it had pollution insurance.

Elcon, which has one other plant in Israel, said the treatment plant would help companies comply with environmental regulations.

It said it chose the area because the site is zoned for heavy industrial use and industry is already there. Company representatives said 20 to 30 percent of business would come from nearby.

Residents expressed frustration with the area's existing air and pollution. Said more than one speaker: "Bucks County has become a dumping ground."

"We are going to do everything we can to stop you," said Jill Popko, mayor of Bordentown. "We absolutely are."

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