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Sanitation Districts Cite Skepticism About Safety; Long Beach Plant Goes Ahead : Plans for 2 Trash-Incineration Plants Canceled

October 01, 1987|MIKE WARD and TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writers

Officials of the county Sanitation Districts say they have given up on plans to build trash incinerators at South Gate and Puente Hills and expand an already operating 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.

The cancellation will not affect a similar plant under construction in Long Beach, which will begin testing in May and be at capacity in August. The $102-million project is being built on Terminal Island.

The projects were canceled because of public skepticism about safety, although officials repeatedly said there was no danger.

Public Remains Worried

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 over time by results of a waste-to-energy plant now operating in Commerce and the one being built in Long Beach.

Commerce City Councilman James Dimas said his city has received no complaints about increased pollution in the area of its plant, which opened in December and began generating at capacity in June.

"We haven't had any problems whatsoever," Dimas said.

Mike Selna, project manager at the Commerce plant, said the levels of dioxin and furan, two cancer-causing chemicals emitted by the plant, are well within the safety range.

"It's less than 1/10 of a part per trillion of air," Selna said. "We can barely measure it."

Pollution Below Estimates

Long Beach project manager Bill Davis said a batch of his city's trash was recently burned at the Commerce plant and emitted 1/700th of the pollutants that had been estimated.

It was not pollution problems but a combination of expiring application deadlines, public skepticism and a surplus of electrical power that caused the Sanitation Districts to back away from plans for the new and expanded plants, agency officials said.

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 the application 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.

No Projects Planned

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 Sanitation 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.

Energy Surplus

Interest in building waste-to-energy 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 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 incineration plant in Commerce burns about 300 tons of trash a day, and its Terminal Island facility will burn 1,350 tons of trash per day.

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.

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