COMMERCE — The pioneering refuse-to-energy plant here is closer to meeting strict emissions standards as engineers continue to refine its pollution-control equipment, plant and air quality officials said last week.
The Hearing Board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District on Wednesday extended the plant's variance from those standards through March 10. The variance, which was granted last April, was due to expire Nov. 1.
AQMD engineering manager Robert R. Pease said the plant must still reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides during brief periods of operation. The plant also must demonstrate its ability to run cleanly in the upcoming winter months, when the garbage that fuels it is damp and clean burning conditions are more difficult to maintain.
"They've made progress," Pease said. "But they're not out of the woods yet."
For months now, the plant has met daily emissions standards for nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, Pease said. But it has had some difficulty meeting hourly standards for those pollutants.
The variance approved last April allowed the plant to keep operating while exceeding the hourly emissions limits for the three pollutants a small percentage of the time. AQMD officials say the hourly standards are important in the polluted Los Angeles area.
The variance extension approved last week requires the plant to meet even more stringent daily emissions standards than imposed by the AQMD in the plant's construction permit.
Under the original permit, for example, the plant could emit 984 pounds per day of nitrogen oxides. That limit is now 850 pounds per day.
The extension requires the plant to meet the original permit limits of 41 pounds per hour for nitrogen oxides. Except for testing, the plant also must meet its original permit conditions of nine pounds per hour of sulfur dioxide.
But the variance extension allows the plant to continue exceeding the hourly limit for carbon monoxide--18 pounds per hour--5% of the time.
Citing health concerns, some area residents for months have been calling for the plant to be shut down unless it can fully meet the original emissions standards.
The city of Commerce and the county Sanitation Districts built and jointly operate the plant.
Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), an outspoken critic of the plant, also has called for the plant to be closed. Roybal-Allard criticized the variance extension in a written statement to the AQMD Hearing Board.
"The health and safety of the people must be the priority," she said. The plant "must be closed until it meets the legal (permit) requirements."
When the original variance was granted last April, plant officials pledged to spend about $500,000 to improve the facility's air-pollution control equipment. Project manager Michael Selna said he now expects that more than $600,000 will be spent.
"I think we've done a lot of work in a short period of time and lowered the emissions from the facility," Selna said. "We're very pleased with the outcome of the work that we've done."
Final reports on those tests must be submitted to the AQMD by March 1, 1990, according to the conditions of the variance extension.
The AQMD is reviewing a study that tries to predict the health effects of the tiny amounts of toxic substances emitted by the plant.
An initial health-risk assessment estimated that those toxic emissions would create less than one additional case of cancer per million people exposed to the emissions 24 hours a day for 70 years. That figure has been raised to 1.7 cases per million people in a revised assessment, Pease said.
Environmentalist and plant opponent Wil Baca said the plant should have been closed pending final approval of the health-risk assessment. "They've had almost three years to do a health-risk assessment and they still don't have it done," Baca said.
Selna said technical problems delayed completion of the health-risk assessment.
"Some of the work had to be repeated," Selna said. "We've moved as quickly as the process allows us to move."
The plant, the first in the county, fired up in late 1986 and operated under a construction permit. The facility is capable of burning about 400 tons of municipal garbage a day in its boiler, which turns water to steam to drive a generator. The plant produces enough power for 20,000 homes. It sells electricity to Southern California Edison.
BACKGROUND The Commerce refuse-to-energy plant, touted as a possible solution to the county's growing trash problem, has been the object of strong public criticism since last January, when the AQMD cited the plant for excessive emissions and denied it a permanent operating permit. Plant officials have secured emergency and regular variances to enable it to continue operating.