SACRAMENTO — A proposal for a $395-million waste-to-energy plant in an Irwindale gravel pit cleared a key hurdle last week when the state Energy Commission agreed to review the project.
The commission has one year to decide whether the project, proposed by Pacific Waste Management Corp. of Newport Beach, should be built.
Criticism of the project surfaced for the first time at the commission hearing Wednesday when Miller Brewing Co., Irwindale's largest employer, raised questions about how the plant would affect ground water supplies and air quality in the San Gabriel Valley.
"Even the slightest air, water or ground contamination could seriously and even irreparably injure Miller," lawyers for the brewery told the five-member commission.
On Opposite Sides
The 85-acre trash plant site is north of the Foothill Freeway and east of Irwindale Avenue. The brewery, which employs 1,000 people, is on the south side of the freeway.
Miller lawyer Terry O. Kelly said the brewery's study of the planned facility "raises very serious concerns." He argued that only quarry sites within Irwindale were considered, and he questioned whether the power from the project would be needed.
In a brief, Kelly also argued that the proposal must be examined carefully "in view of the proposed siting of the facility in an already highly polluted air basin, above the primary recharge area of a critical (water) aquifer and adjacent to the Miller brewery."
Supporters of the project, including Irwindale City Manager Charles Martin, said they were surprised by the criticism but do not expect it to sidetrack the proposal.
Scott Matthews, a spokesman for the Energy Commission, said the Miller criticisms dealt with important issues. But he said they were not serious enough to delay beginning the commission's formal review of the proposal.
The commission agreed to accept the proposal for review on a 4-0 vote with one member abstaining. But Commissioner Warren D. Noteware cautioned that agreeing to consider the project "in no way puts our stamp of approval on it."
The waste-to-energy project was first proposed about 18 months ago by Pacific Waste, a subsidiary of Conversion Industries Ltd. of Vancouver, Canada.
The plant is intended to provide an alternative to landfills for disposing of refuse. The facility would burn 3,150 tons of rubbish a day to generate 80 megawatts of electricity--enough to serve about 40,000 households.
Under federal law, Southern California Edison Co. is required to purchase power from the project, according to a spokesman for the utility. However, the plant would need a guaranteed supply of trash from San Gabriel Valley cities in order to produce the electricity. Laurence J. Peck, Pacific Waste's president, said that he hopes to have trash contracts signed with 15 area cities within the next 30 days.
Pacific Waste last year persuaded the city of Irwindale and its redevelopment agency to create a joint powers agency to sell $395 million worth of bonds to build the plant. City manager Martin has said in the past that revenue from the project would pay off the bonds.
Peck said Pacific Waste must win approval for the project from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as the state Energy Commission. An application is pending with the EPA. The Energy Commission operates as a one-stop permit agency for state and local agencies.
Applied a Year Ago
Pacific Waste first applied to the commission last fall. Since then, the commission has been seeking information to decide whether formal proceedings should begin. The issue has been on the commission agenda several times, only to be pulled at the last minute because not enough information was available.
On Wednesday, commissioners spent several hours debating whether the material was adequate before finally accepting the application for review. In part, the debate was prompted when Miller Brewing Co. introduced two lengthy briefs raising its concerns.
Peck said he was surprised by the Miller criticism because the brewery had been informed about the project months ago and had not objected.
He declined to respond in detail to the Miller comments. On Thursday, another Pacific Waste spokesman said the firm had not had a chance to study the Miller comments.
However, Tom Wetherill, Pacific Waste vice president of planning, denied that waste being processed at the plant would pollute the water supply, one of Miller's key assertions.
"The refuse is stored in a concrete box before combustion so there's no escape into the ground water," Wetherill said.
Irwindale Mayor Michael Miranda said he had been told about the Miller concerns but said they could be handled. For instance, he said, a drain could be built to trap polluted water before it could pose a threat to local supplies.
City Manager Martin said he was caught off guard by the Miller comments because brewery representatives had not appeared at a series of local meetings on the project. "It's kind of late in the game to be protesting," he said.