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Trash Power : Councilman Hopes to Revive Proposal for Waste-to-Energy Plant

July 27, 1989|SANTIAGO O'DONNELL | Times Staff Writer

Wearing a hard hat, business suit and bulldog expression that made him look like a demanding plant inspector, Glendale City Councilman Carl Raggio nodded approvingly as a garbage truck dumped its load at an incinerator pit in the City of Commerce.

Raggio sighed admiringly as a giant crane lifted three tons of garbage from the pit and sent it rolling down a chute to the plant's furnace.

Turning to Glendale Public Works Director George Miller, the councilman solemnly pronounced: "This is the wave of the future."

Raggio and Miller were touring the waste-to-energy plant in Commerce--one of two in the Los Angeles basin--on Friday. The visit was a symbolic first step toward reviving the councilman's dream of solving Glendale's refuse problems by building a state-of-the-art incinerator complex in the city's Scholl Canyon landfill.

But Raggio's opponents say they are ready and waiting.

Opponents Steadfast

The Commerce plant, they say, which was built as a showcase of waste-to-energy technology, has proven only that incinerators cause serious pollution problems, and the opponents say they will never allow another incinerator plant in southern California.

Two years ago a city report recommended a feasibility study for an incinerator in Glendale, but the proposal never got off the ground. Weeks later a much-publicized plan to build a giant incinerator was defeated in South-Central Los Angeles, and the Scholl Canyon project was quietly put on hold.

Plans for similar projects throughout the region quickly followed suit, crumbling one after another in the face of public pressure.

Undaunted, Raggio is back on the offensive. As he sees it, the political storm raised by incinerator foes has passed, and Glendale can wait no longer to address its looming garbage crisis. With less than 20 years of life left in the city's landfill, and other dump sites in the region filling even faster, the time has come to reopen the incinerator debate.

If only politicians, environmentalists and "the liberal lawyers" at the state regulatory agencies would give incinerators a chance, Raggio reasons, they would solve the garbage problem of the entire Los Angeles basin.

Only four years ago, more than two dozen incinerators were proposed throughout California, and the giant waste-to-energy project in Vernon in South-Central Los Angeles had received Mayor Tom Bradley's blessing. The incinerators, boosters proclaimed, would reduce mountains of rubbish to piles of ash. And as a side benefit, the plants would generate electric power for sale to local utilities.

But although nearly 100 plants have been built in other states and hundreds more in Europe and Asia, pollution-conscious Californians quickly galvanized grass-roots opposition and killed off most of the projects before they were constructed.

The most serious reversal came in June, 1987, when Bradley, sensing the changing political climate, changed his position and opposed the Vernon project.

Political Decision

It was a political decision that enraged Raggio, an aerospace engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada and a firm believer that technology properly applied can lead to environmentally safe solutions.

He said the Vernon project was defeated because Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina "made a career out of telling people that the incinerator would pollute their neighborhood, but these people don't know what they're talking about. Waste-to-energy plants produce less pollution than car emissions in a mile of highway."

The Commerce plant burns 350 tons of garbage a day, and produces enough electricity for 20,000 homes.

Don Avila, a spokesman for the County Sanitation Districts in charge of operating the Commerce plant, shares Raggio's distaste for the strong-arm tactics he claims are used against waste-to-energy projects.

"We live in age where voters are very sophisticated," he said, "and they realize how easy it is to get something closed by going to elected officials and telling them, 'Guess what? You do this and you will be recalled,' so the politician says, 'Maybe I ought to back down on this one and try something different.' "

With the debate simmered down somewhat since the Vernon battle, Raggio believes the time has come to reintroduce his incinerator proposal. "I don't think we can wait any longer, with our landfill almost full. We can't push back any further our search for alternatives."

Raggio envisions building four incinerators at Scholl Canyon, each burning 300 tons a day of refuse--enough to provide almost every household in the city with electricity and reduce the landfill's daily intake of 2,500 tons per day almost by half.

Such a project, Raggio acknowledged, would cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars to build. But part of the complex, he said, could be funded by an increase in tipping fees, the money paid to Glendale by 10 cities that dump their refuse in Scholl Canyon. The rest could be paid by municipal bonds, he said.

Cost Recovery Seen

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