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Vernon Considers Refuse-to-Energy, Methanol Plants

October 22, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

VERNON — It's a proposal that sounds too good to be true: burn the city's trash and reduce air pollution at the same time.

But a San Fernando Valley firm called Applied Cogeneration is negotiating with Vernon to build a pair of refuse-to-energy and methanol plants is supposed to do just that.

"We're going to burn 1,500 tons of garbage a day and the result will be a net reduction in pollution," Executive Vice President Kenneth C. Keck predicted in a recent interview.

The project could eliminate some sources of pollution in Vernon by using waste heat from the trash plant to power other industrial activities. In addition, municipal vehicles and private garbage trucks serving the city would be converted to use methanol, a cleaner alternative to gasoline and diesel fuel.

Because the plan is to reduce air pollution, Keck hopes to avoid the public opposition that recently has stopped other refuse-to-energy projects in the Los Angeles area.

Applied Cogeneration has an exclusive development agreement with Vernon to build the plants side-by-side on a 10-acre site in this industrial city that shares Los Angeles' southeast border. The firm is negotiating to acquire the site, a shipping terminal owned by ANR Freight, and has initiated environmental and feasibility studies that are expected to be completed in the next few months. Applied Cogeneration would then have to secure City Council approval of the $250-million project.

"We support the concept," said Mayor Leonis C. Malburg. "The landfills are filling and what are we going to do with all this trash?"

But Malburg said a key question is whether the project can reduce pollution as predicted.

"It's a hope anyway. We don't know if it will fly."

The project is tailored to the needs of the large number of meat-processing and packing plants that make their home in Vernon.

As proposed, the trash-to-energy plant would use a state-of-the-art incinerator to burn as much as 1,500 tons of non-hazardous commercial and residential garbage daily. The resulting heat would turn water into steam, some of which would be run through condensing coils and cooled to produce refrigerant.

First in State

Both the steam and refrigerant would be piped to local plants for use in cooking, processing and preserving meat. The methanol plant--the first in California--would produce about 120-million gallons of fuel a year, Keck said.

The reduction in air pollution would be accomplished on two fronts, according to Keck.

First, about 60 city vehicles and privately operated garbage trucks would be converted to burn methanol. (Diesel-burning garbage trucks now rumble through the city and out to the Puente Hills landfill to deposit about 1,200 tons of trash produced by Vernon each day, he said.)

Secondly, some plants would have their steam-producing boilers converted to burn methanol instead of diesel fuel or natural gas. Applied Cogeneration will pay for all or part of the vehicle and plant conversions, Keck said.

Other plants will be able to shut down their boilers and buy steam and refrigerant from Applied Cogeneration at attractive rates, he said. In addition, Applied Cogeneration will profit from incineration fees and sales of methanol.

The trash-to-energy plant and the methanol plant both will give off some contaminants, but that will be overshadowed by a net reduction, Keck predicted. As with any incinerator, the one operated by Applied Cogeneration will emit minute amounts of toxics such as dioxins and furans, which are known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

But, Keck said, the plant will employ the same or similar pollution-control equipment that is being used in a refuse-to-energy plant in nearby Commerce. The county Sanitation Districts and Commerce jointly developed and have been running that plant since December on a temporary permit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Preliminary test results indicate the plant is producing less pollution than expected, and very minute amounts of toxins and furans. Studies are still being conducted, but plant officials said emissions of dioxins and furans are so low that, based on previous health studies, they probably would not create an increased health risk of even one case of cancer per million people.

Vernon is part of the management district, which regulates air quality in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties and portions of San Bernardino County. The SCAQMD would monitor emissions from the Applied Cogeneration project and issue an operating permit if it meets standards.

If the project reduces pollution as predicted, it will make it easier for area companies to expand amid the region's strict air quality regulations.

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