A private firm's proposal to build a plant to burn toxic wastes on San Clemente Island has raised the ire of San Diego County lawmakers concerned about the potential for ocean spills and noxious smoke wafting toward shore.
American Waste Energy Management Corp., a recently formed company based in Inglewood, has asked the federal government for permission to build the $50-million incineration plant on the island, 60 miles west of the county's coastline.
The firm also has submitted an application to the Navy Department, which operates an airstrip and gunnery range on San Clemente Island, to build the toxics-burning plant.
Though company officials insist that the proposal is still in its formative stages, officials in several San Diego County cities have already come out in opposition to the plan.
In Del Mar and National City, council members have agreed to fight the project, voting in recent meetings to oppose it. The city councils in Carlsbad and Chula Vista are having their staffs compile more information on the project and may vote on the issue in a few weeks.
Oceanside officials have tentatively decided to avoid taking a stand on the plant, but Mayor Larry Bagley said the council may reconsider that decision and come out against it. Officials in San Diego have decided not to take up the issue.
Opposition to the proposal was sparked in large part by city officials of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. In early February, the city dispatched dozens of information packages to municipalities up and down the Southern California coast, warning them about the plant.
The campaign has troubled American Waste Energy Management officials, who insist that the plant will pass muster with the regulatory agencies that enforce environmental standards for air and water quality. They say the proper time for protest is when the project actually goes up for review before state and federal agencies.
"I think their concern is a bit premature," said Kenneth E. Horn, president of American Waste Energy Management. "If, in fact, we ever get to a 'go' position, there will be numerous hearings held and everyone concerned about the plant will have their questions answered."
The plant, a German-designed system that would render wastes harmless by cooking them in kilns at 3,000 degrees, could handle more than 100,000 tons of hazardous materials annually, Horn said. Heat from the burning concoction could be used to turn steam generators and produce electricity for Navy installations on the island, he said.
Horn said the process reduces the toxics to little more than an inert byproduct that can be more easily disposed of in landfills, perhaps even a dump situated on the island. The plant is planned for a 10-acre site, he said.
Wastes would be ferried to the plant on ships, a proposal Horn contends would be far less hazardous than trundling toxic wastes in trucks across Southern California to distant landfills.
"We feel that basically it's much safer to transport these materials on the open seas than on the freeway systems of California," Horn said. "Quite frankly, we feel the open sea, between the Port of Los Angeles and San Clemente Island, is a lot less dangerous than the 405 Freeway."
Horn said the island was selected as a potential site for the project because it is a remote location and has a small population of about 500 servicemen.
In addition, the site is buffeted by high winds that would quickly dissipate smoke from the plant, and the land is composed of solid rock that is geologically suited to such an operation, he said.
Ken Mitchell, a Navy spokesman, said the firm's proposal is among about a dozen different ideas being considered by military officials to help supplement the electrical needs of facilities on San Clemente Island.
Among the other concepts being studied by the Navy as alternative energy sources for the island are systems that harness the energy of the wind and one device that uses waves to generate electricity, he said.
American Waste Energy Management was "given an opportunity to submit their plan and it will be reviewed when we review all the others," Mitchell said. "It's still in its beginning stages. But I'm sure a project's effect on the environment will be a big part of any decision that's made."
Kay Jimno, Del Mar city manager, said her City Council is concerned about the potential that toxic wastes could spill while being transported to the island. They also fear that the plant might cause increased air pollution problems for the San Diego coastal region, she added.
"I think the hope is that we communicate to the U.S. Navy to make it clear that we have some very real concerns on the issue," Jimno said.
For civic leaders in Los Angeles, however, the prospect of a toxics-burning plant has been greeted in a far more congenial manner.