COMMERCE — County fire officials have warned that the Commerce refuse-to-energy plant does not have an adequate firefighting system, saying the deficiencies slowed efforts to fight a recent fire at the facility.
The warning was contained in a letter from county Assistant Fire Chief Michael D. Aviani to a Commerce official about a March 7 fire in the trash pit of the plant. There were no injuries and damage was limited to the facility's roof, but it took firefighters about five hours to put out the blaze. The cause of the fire is unknown. Commerce contracts with Los Angeles County for firefighting services.
Potential for Injury
"If there had been the on-site fire protection facilities that we had requested in the past, the extinguishment of the fire should have been accomplished in a shorter period of time," Aviani wrote in the March 14 letter. "At this particular incident no one was injured and damage to the facility was minimal, but the potential for injury and property loss is obvious."
A plant official said last week that the Fire Department's requirements would be met.
"We have been and will continue to be in contact with the Fire Department because they are the experts in the field," said Project Manager Michael W. Selna.
The firefighting effort on March 7 was slowed because the plant only has water cannons high above the trash pit and not at surface level, Aviani said in an interview last week. In addition, automatic roof vents did not open and firefighters had to vent the roof manually to release smoke so they could see, Aviani said.
To further complicate matters, a crane operator who was helping to fight the fire by scooping burning trash into the plant's incinerator had to leave his post because he exhausted his emergency air supply. He was exposed to risk, Aviani said, by entering the fire pit area. This delayed firefighting efforts, Aviani added.
Aviani said plant officials had been working to resolve some of the deficiencies identified before the fire, and they have agreed to solve other problems that surfaced during the blaze. The plant will be allowed to continue operating even though employees and firefighters would be at risk if there were another blaze before the changes were made, Aviani said.
The high-tech incinerator was developed and is run by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts in conjunction with the City of Commerce. The first in the county, the refuse-to-energy plant has been touted as a technology that could provide a solution to garbage disposal problems as more landfills close.
In operation since December, 1986, the plant is capable of burning 420 tons of non-hazardous garbage a day. Heat from the incinerator turns water to steam to drive a generator capable of providing enough electricity for about 20,000 homes. The electricity is sold to Southern California Edison Co.
Selna and Plant Manager Ed Wheless said they have been working with the Fire Department since the plant was being designed.
Plans for two additional water cannons, increased fire protection for a tank of ammonia used in the plant's pollution control system and other improvements were submitted to the Fire Department last January, the officials said.
"We've been moving forward," Selna said.
The Fire Department has agreed to expedite review of those plans, and the improvements will be made within one month of approval, Aviani and Selna said.
Selna said plant personnel will work with the Fire Department to carry out other suggestions, which include improving the venting in the plant and providing additional firefighting training for employees.
Aviani said his staff had long suspected there would be some deficiencies in the plant's firefighting system, and other problems have surfaced over the past two years. Engineers for the two agencies initially disagreed over some improvements, delaying changes that are now deemed necessary, he said.
"This type of facility has been new to us, so there's been a learning process for us," Aviani said. "We're reassessing the entire operation over there because of this last fire and there may be additional requirements."
The warning about the inadequate firefighting system is the second snag for the plant in recent weeks. The South Coast Air Quality Management District denied the plant an operating permit in January for exceeding emissions limits. The plant appealed and has been running on an emergency permit pending a decision.