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Trash Burner Plans Dropped as Concerns of Public Persist

September 27, 1987|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Officials of the county Sanitation Districts say they have given up on plans to build trash incinerators at Puente Hills and South Gate and on the expansion of the trash-burning plant in Commerce.

The projects could be revived someday, but Charles Carry, general manager of the Sanitation Districts, said the plant applications that were filed with the South Coast Air Quality Management District in 1985, and which recently expired, will not be refiled.

Carry said his agency is as "convinced as ever" that waste-to-energy plants can be run safely, but the public remains worried that they will create smog and damage public health.

"We have never wavered, but obviously some people are skeptical," Carry said, adding that perhaps minds will be changed by results of a waste-to-energy plant that is now in operation in the City of Commerce and another under construction in Long Beach.

Cancel Applications

The air quality district recently notified Carry that his agency's applications for waste-to-energy facilities at Puente Hills, South Gate and Commerce have been canceled because of legal deadlines.

The cancellation came shortly before a hearing officer for the state Energy Commission ruled Friday that the Sanitation Districts erred in filing the Puente Hills proposal with the air quality district, and should refile the project with the Energy Commission.

But Steve Maguin, who heads the Sanitation Districts' solid waste management department, said the agency is no longer working on new waste-to-energy projects. He said work stopped after the agency's proposal to build an incinerator at the Spadra landfill in Pomona was withdrawn in July because of public opposition.

Maguin said sanitation officials concluded that if the Spadra project could not win approval, neither could any of the other projects.

The Spadra project "was the best design ever proposed in the world" for a trash burner, Maguin said. A health risk assessment showed that low-level toxins from the plant would not harm public health, and the Sanitation Districts arranged to pay for pollution reductions at other plants to more than offset pollution from burning trash so that air quality would be protected.

But public opposition, stemming from doubts about the health risk assessment and the air quality claims, overwhelmed the project, forcing the districts to drop it.

Maguin said work on waste-to-energy plans will not resume until there is some evidence of public acceptance.

He added that a current surplus of electrical energy has removed the economic incentive to burn trash to generate electricity for sale to power companies.

Interest in building the plants grew out of the energy shortage of the 1970s. But now that an energy surplus exists in California, the state Public Utilities Commission no longer requires power companies to buy electricity from trash incineration plants.

In the last two years, projects to build trash incineration plants in Azusa, Irwindale, South El Monte and Pomona have failed because of public opposition.

The Sanitation Districts operate a trash incineration plant in the City of Commerce that burns about 300 tons of trash a day, and are building a 1,350-ton-per-day plant in Long Beach.

At the end of 1985, the districts applied to the air quality district for permits to expand the Commerce plant to handle 900 tons of trash a day, build a plant in South Gate to burn up to 375 tons a day and construct two plants at the Puente Hills landfill, each capable of burning up to 2,000 tons of trash a day.

By filing the applications before the end of 1985, sanitation officials hoped to take advantage of an expiring law that temporarily relaxed rules requiring waste-to-energy plants to procure air pollution credits to offset their emissions. But Maguin said subsequent regulations eliminated the advantages of filing before the 1985 deadline.

Thus, he said, the Sanitation Districts have lost nothing by the cancellation of their 1985 applications.

Challenge Application

The application to construct two trash burners at the Puente Hills landfill was challenged by the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn. shortly after it was filed with the air quality district. The homeowner group contended that the project required approval by the state Energy Commission, which has authority over power plants that generate more than 50 megawatts.

The proposed Puente Hills plants would generate 47 megawatts each.

The commission in 1986 ordered hearings on the issue of whether it had jurisdiction over the plants. The Sanitation Districts argued that the application to build the two plants was filed with the air quality district to keep options open, and did not represent a commitment to build either plant. The districts contended that it was premature to decide who had jurisdiction.

The Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., backed by the City of Duarte, argued that the plants' total of 94 megawatts put the projects under the commission's jurisdiction, and urged the commission to assert authority over a Puente Hills plant that burns landfill gas to generate electricity. The gas recovery plant generates up to 46.5 megawatts of power, but could be expanded.

Garret Shean, who was assigned by the Energy Commission to hear the dispute, ruled Friday that the Puente Hills trash-to-energy projects require commission approval, but that the existing gas-to-energy plant does not.

Shean's proposed order is tentatively scheduled to be considered by the Energy Commission on Nov. 4.

If the commission upholds the order, the Sanitation Districts would have to obtain Energy Commission approval if they ever decide to revive the Puente Hills projects.

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