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Sanitation Districts Accused of Deceit : Homeowners File Waste-Plant Complaint With Energy Panel

February 13, 1986|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

A Hacienda Heights homeowners group has accused the county Sanitation Districts of using "deceit and fraud" to try to build waste-to-energy plants without approval from the state Energy Commission, and has asked the agency to force the districts to apply to it for permits for proposed plants at the Puente Hills landfill.

James Stagner, president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., said in a formal complaint to the Energy Commission that the districts are trying to build electricity-generating plants in stages to conceal their cumulative impact on air pollution and to avoid scrutiny by the state energy authority.

Puente Hills Plant

The districts are building a plant at Puente Hills landfill that will burn landfill gas to produce 42 megawatts of electricity, and have proposed two waste-to-energy plants that combined would burn up to 10,000 tons of trash a day, creating 235 megawatts of power.

The Puente Hills landfill is the largest in the county. It receives more than 11,000 tons of trash daily, six days a week.

The Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., which has 800 member families and is the principal representative for a community of about 50,000 residents, has fought expansion of the dump, which is operating under a permit that expires in 1993.

Charles W. Carry, general manager of the Sanitation Districts, denied Tuesday that his agency is trying to circumvent the Energy Commission.

In fact, he said, the districts' directors have not yet approved a waste-to-energy project at the Puente Hills landfill so it is not known whether Energy Commission approval will be required.

2 Ways to Obtain Permits

There are two ways to obtain permits for waste-to-energy projects. Plants generating more than 50 megawatts of power--enough electricity to serve 30,000 homes--must apply to the Energy Commission, which consults with local, regional and state regulatory agencies, but has the power to override their recommendations.

Plants that would generate less than 50 megwatts are licensed directly by the regulatory agencies and their applications never reach the Energy Commission.

The complaint by the Hacienda Heights homeowners was triggered by the Sanitation Districts' decision to file applications last December with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to build two waste-to-energy plants at separate sites within the landfill. Each plant would burn about 2,000 tons of trash a day and generate 47 megawatts of power.

But Carry said those filings did not represent firm projects, and were made to keep the districts' options open. By filing the applications before the end of the year, the Sanitation Districts met a deadline that could allow the plants to be built under less stringent air pollution rules.

Represent Cities, County

Carry said the districts' directors, who represent cities and the county, will make a decision on the Puente Hills project after an environmental impact report is completed this summer.

But Stagner said he believes that proposing two plants under 50 megawatts is clearly intended to circumvent the commission. By staying under 50 megawatts, he said, the Sanitation Districts themselves can be the "lead agency" in carrying out environmental studies and in shepherding the projects through other regulatory agencies, instead of being directed by the Energy Commission.

The complaint filed by Stagner accuses the districts of "a callous disregard for the environmental impacts of such projects (on) Hacienda Heights and the San Gabriel Valley."

Asks for Hearings

Stagner has asked the Energy Commission to hold hearings on the complaint, assume authority over the Puente Hills projects and seek an injunction to stop the Sanitation Districts from circumventing the commission.

William Chamberlain, the commission's general counsel, said he has not yet analyzed the complaint, but commissioners have criticized waste-to-energy developers for designing projects to fall just outside the commission's scope.

He said a regulation is being drafted to stop waste-to-energy developers from splitting projects. The proposed regulation would enable the commission to declare two plants built by one developer to be one project, and use their combined power output to determine whether the plants fall under the commission's authority.

Chamberlain said developers may be trying to bypass the commission because it is the only agency that looks at whether there is any need for the electricity the plants would generate.

In Wake of Energy Shortage

The Energy Commission was created to promote energy development after the energy shortages of the 1970s. But its mission has changed, Chamberlain said. Today, he said, "we're well beyond worrying about keeping the lights on." The danger now, he said, is that the development of excess energy-generating capacity will increase power costs to consumers.

But Carry denied that the Sanitation Districts are trying to avoid analysis of their proposed plants' impact on state energy capacity.

Carry said waste-to-energy plants create such a comparatively small amount of electricity that their impact is minimal. He noted that the Puente Hills projects are planned for the 1990s, when energy needs may well be greater than they are now.

The Sanitation Districts also have proposed construction of a waste-to-energy plant that would burn 1,000 tons of trash a day at the Spadra landfill in Pomona. It would generate 24 megawatts.

Pacific Waste Management Corp. is seeking Energy Commision approval for a waste-to-energy plant in Irwindale that would burn 3,000 tons of trash daily and generate 80 megawatts.

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