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AQMD Tries Again to Cut Plant's Emissions

July 09, 1989|RICK HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has renewed its efforts to require the Commerce refuse-to-energy plant to meet emissions standards, attacking the legality of the facility's recently granted variance from pollution limits.

The district's Hearing Board on Tuesday is scheduled to consider a petition for a new hearing on the variance, which allows the plant to operate in violation of AQMD pollution standards until Nov. 1. The variance was granted in April.

"The board made errors of law which render (the decision) improper," AQMD lawyer Elliott Sernel wrote in a petition to the Hearing Board.

Hearing Board Chairman B. C. Escobar declined to comment on the allegation because the matter is before the independent, quasi-judicial body. The AQMD could seek a Superior Court order to overturn a Hearing Board decision.

The Hearing Board also is scheduled to consider a petition for an order of abatement, which would empower the AQMD to require the plant to stop emitting excessive amounts of pollution.

The AQMD staff would like the plant to meet emission standards sooner than is likely under the variance, said Robert R. Pease, the district's senior air quality engineering manager. The variance requires the plant to meet emissions standards by Nov. 1, but the Hearing Board has scheduled an Oct. 25 hearing to consider an extension if necessary.

"We want to ensure compliance on an expedited schedule," Pease said.

The district could seek to shut down the plant, as a last resort, if it failed to meet emissions standards, Pease said.

A plant official said the abatement order was unnecessary because the county Sanitation Districts and the city of Commerce, which jointly own and operate the plant, are making more than $500,000 in improvements to pollution-control equipment under the variance. Those improvements should be completed in September, project manager Michael Selna said.

"We're moving extremely fast," Selna said. "We're doing quite a bit better and are hopeful that we'll meet the (original emissions) standards."

The plant, the first in the county, fired up in late 1986 and operated under a construction permit. The facility is capable of burning up to 420 tons of municipal garbage a day in its boiler, which turns water to steam to drive a generator. The plant, which sells electricity to Southern California Edison Co., produces enough power for 20,000 homes.

District Denied Permanent Permit

The AQMD and plant officials have been at odds since January, when the district denied a permanent operating permit after citing the facility for exceeding limits on nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions on 40 days during a two-month period last year.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides exceeded limits of 41 pounds an hour by as much as 14 pounds. Emissions of sulfur dioxide ran as high as 27.8 pounds an hour, more than triple the limit of nine pounds per hour. In addition to volume limits, the plant also exceeded concentration limits of 225 parts per million for nitrogen oxides.

Under the variance, the plant is permitted to exceed its hourly emissions limits a small percentage of the time.

Emissions reports indicate the plant has stayed within the variance limits, but it has continued to exceed the original emissions levels, Pease said.

From April 3 through June 11, the plant exceeded the original hourly volume limits for sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide four times. It also exceeded concentration limits for nitrogen oxides at least nine times during the same two-month period.

In its petition for a new hearing, the AQMD attacks the Hearing Board for allegedly granting the variance without satisfying accompanying legal requirements.

The state Health and Safety Code allows such variances only under certain circumstances. There must be evidence that an owner would be forced to close his business or suffer an unreasonable loss of property if required to meet emissions standards.

There must also be proof that such a closure would be without a corresponding benefit in reduced emissions. Several other findings must be made as well before a variance can be granted.

Sernel, the deputy district counsel, could not be reached last week to describe specific allegations against the Hearing Board's decision.

The AQMD filed the petition for a new hearing on June 2, several days after officials from the district met with officials of the California Air Resources Board. The state agency has jurisdiction over the local air pollution control districts.

The California board reviewed the variance proceedings after receiving letters from Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and others in opposition to the variance.

In a June 21 report, the California board's staff also criticized members of the Hearing Board for allegedly granting the variance without meeting the legal requirements.

The board's staff found, among other things, that Commerce officials had not proved the plant would fail financially if the amount of trash burned was cut back to reduce emissions.

The state board could move to modify or revoke the variance granted by the local Hearing Board. But James J. Morgester, chief of the state board's compliance division, said the agency would await the Hearing Board's decision on the new hearing.

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