RIALTO, Calif. — A proposal to build a $70-million waste-to-energy plant that would burn 9 million tires a year in this Riverside County community has touched off heated controversy throughout the Inland Empire and raised calls for revised air quality standards in the region.
In recent weeks, San Bernardino County and Riverside County supervisors and city councils throughout the Inland Empire have protested plans for the plant, which they fear would spread more pollutants into already smoggy skies.
Despite the strong opposition, the company behind the project, Garb Oil and Power of Salt Lake City, has met nearly all legal requirements, and opponents, including a host of homeowner associations and state legislators, may be unable to stop the project.
'First Magnitude' Disaster
"If this plant goes in, it threatens to turn air quality in western Riverside and San Bernardino counties into a disaster of the first magnitude--which it almost already is," said Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside).
Presley presided over a legislative hearing Monday in San Bernardino that focused on the South Coast Air Quality Management District's "exchange of-credits" system, which Garb Oil is using in its attempt to win approval of the plant from the pollution-control agency.
Under the system, a new industry may literally buy the right to pollute the air by purchasing "smog credits" from companies elsewhere in the South Coast basin that have closed down or installed equipment to reduce their own emissions, air quality officials said.
The value of these credits is reduced the further they are moved from their original source. As a result, the officials say, the buyer winds up polluting less than the credits are worth.
In this way, the total amount of air pollution in the South Coast basin is kept below a certain threshold--despite the addition of new industries in a given region, the air quality officials said.
But Presley calls the credit system "ridiculous and dangerous" and said "perhaps we need to change these rules."
The Garb Oil issue is complicated by a law passed by the Legislature during the 1981 energy crunch. It declared that a "resource recovery project," such a tire-burning plant, did not have to buy enough credits to offset all of its emissions if it had made a "good faith effort" to do so, officials said.
That law was repealed in January--after Garb Oil filed its application to construct the tire-burning plant. After Jan. 1, a company was required to purchase all the credits needed to offset its emissions.
As it stands, although Garb Oil has asked thousands of companies in the South Coast basin to sell some of their available credits, it has only managed to acquire about a fourth of the number needed to compensate for the amount of emissions expected to be generated by the project, San Bernardino County officials said.
'Good Faith Effort'
Nonetheless, in the view of the company, and some air quality officials, that constitutes the legal "good faith effort" required at the time Garb Oil applied for its construction permit.
"I think whether the district denies or approves the project there should be consistency in the law," said Jeb Stuart, former executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District and now a paid consultant to Garb Oil. "I don't think it is appropriate for a regulatory agency to selectively deny a project on the basis of public controversy."
Garb Oil acknowledges that the plant would produce about 640 tons of pollutants a year. But it says the plant would be safe for local residents, produce electricity for 30,000 homes and create hundreds of jobs in the area.
Garb Oil President John Brewer said he "checked" the cities of Commerce, Fontana, Irwindale and Vernon before settling on Rialto as an ideal home for the tire-burning plant.
The Rialto site, he said, is properly zoned, near a sewage treatment plant, which could provide coolant water, power lines and major access highways.
As for tires, Southern California scraps 457 million pounds of automobile and truck tires a year, he said.
"I think the whole damn controversy is ridiculous. The plant would not present a problem," Brewer said. "We know from a legal standpoint we are right."
The nearest homes to the proposed plant, Brewer said, are "upwind" and most of the pollution would be "dissipated over miles and miles with most of it falling on the San Bernardino Mountains north of us."
Council Takes No Stand
In the midst of the uproar, the Rialto City Council has not taken a public stand on the issue and, to the chagrin of neighboring communities, has not required that an environmental impact report be prepared on the project.
"If the company legally meets all state and federal requirements what right does a locality have to say that it can't come in?" asked Rialto City Administrator Homer Bludau.
"Rialto's position is if they can satisfy those agencies, it will allow them to come in."