“Why, there is a school not five miles from there,” someone shouted during a testy three-hour hearing this week on the proposed Sander waste-to-energy plant in Kearny Mesa.
Signal Cos. director Frank Mazanec said the words stuck in his mind. But knowing the firm had already taken notice of nearby schools, the words meant little, he said.
But Mazanec said an urgent message from the firm’s Sacramento lobbyist at 8 the following morning gave new meaning to the concern the woman had raised during the California Energy Commission informational hearing at the Al Bahr Shrine Temple on Kearny Mesa Road.
In the wide-open legislative battle being waged here over the controversial power-generating trash incinerators, opponents had launched a surprise offensive.
A bill by Sen. Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim) that did not remotely pertain to waste incinerators had been suddenly amended to prohibit the operation of any large waste-to-energy plant within three miles of a school, hospital, nursing home, day-care center or food processing plant.
The measure, which was quickly nicknamed the “Three Mile Island bill,” surprised even Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), who has made an attempt to halt construction of the proposed 60-megawatt Sander plant one of his top legislative objectives this year.
Royce’s bill, which lobbyists for the Miller Brewing Co. candidly admit they persuaded the Orange County senator to introduce, would effectively ensure that any large plant that would generate 50 or more megawatts of electricity could only be built in a remote, rural area. Royce, who insists he does not oppose the concept of waste-to-energy plants, says that is precisely what he had in mind.
Because little is known about the air pollution trash-to-energy plants will cause, “it doesn’t make good environmental sense” to locate “some of the largest (waste to energy) plants in the U.S. . . . in environmentally sensitive areas,” Royce said.
“In our urban areas in California, we have some of the dirtiest air in the U.S. today,” he added.
Spokesman for Miller Brewing have said they fear the affect the air pollution from the waste incinerator would have on the brewing of beer.
Royce’s bill would affect four proposed waste-to-energy plants in California, three of which already have begun the months-long Energy Commission application process--the 60-megawatt Sander project in San Diego, an 80-megawatt plant in Irwindale and an 80-megawatt plant in Redwood City. A proposed plant at Puente Hills might also have to meet the site requirement, depending on its size.
But 30 smaller plants in various stages of planning around the state, including one in San Marcos, would not be affected.
The measure, which was introduced in its current form Monday, was scheduled for a hearing earlier this week before the Senate Local Government Committee. But votes on it, and five other waste-to-energy bills, were postponed until next Wednesday.
Should Royce’s bill survive its first legislative test and win eventual Senate approval, legislative observers say it will probably have an uphill battle in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, where bills aimed at stalling such plants have fared poorly so far.
Although there is only one tiny experimental plant operating in the state, waste-to-energy facilities have become the focus of one of the liveliest and most multifaceted environmental debates in recent memory. Legislators say the topic has also been one of the most heavily lobbied of the session.
So far, state lawmakers have introduced 11 bills, advocating virtually every conceivable extreme on both sides, plus many positions in between. They range from a moratorium or ban in the smog-choked Los Angeles Basin until the air is clean to measures that would strip away zoning and approval prerogatives of local governments that might stand in the way of a waste-to-energy project.
Backers of waste-to-energy plants admit that the energy crisis that prompted the technology has long since passed. But they say the high-tech incinerators are needed as an alternative to landfills for 36.5 million tons of garbage Californians throw away annually.
But critics say the plants are relatively dirty sources of energy and there is too little known about toxic chemicals likely to be released from them.
Little has been heard from builders and environmental groups, traditional foes in such debates. Within some environmental groups, the issue has touched off internal disputes between those concerned about ground water contamination beneath rapidly filling landfills and others who are worried more about waste incinerators polluting the air.
The Miller Brewing Co., trying anything it can to halt construction of the waste-to-energy plant near its Irwindale brewery, has been in the center of the fray, often forming unlikely alliances with school districts.
Stirling, who says it is “logically flawed . . . to take the pollution out of the ground and put it into the air,” said Thursday that he still hopes to enact a moratorium on the waste-to-energy plant construction until more air pollution studies are done. He said he had “nursed back to life” his bill and would soon be asking the Assembly committee that has voted against it twice to take one more look.
He said he hopes that Miller, already a supporter of his bill, will be more active in lobbying for it when he takes it to the Natural Resources Committee again.
San Diego lobbyist Richard Ratcliffe said a lot of cities like San Diego want to see waste-to-energy plants encouraged just to give them more options in disposing of the million tons of garbage generated each year.
“It is extremely frustrating” to people in favor of waste-to-energy plants, Ratcliffe said, that a technology that grew out of the need for energy now has to be sold in a highly charged political climate as a good way to get rid of “garbage and ugly stuff that people don’t want to talk about.”
Mazanec also believes it is sometimes difficult to interject reason into the emotionally charged debate. Royce’s bill, although easily recognizable as Miller’s latest strategy, is an example, Mazanec said.
As part of the application process required by the Energy Commission, the Sander project’s proponents have already had to address potential health effects on schools, hospitals, nursing homes and day-care centers.
“The fact is there are sensitive individuals to any kind of industrial facilities that ought to be taken under consideration” Mazanec said. “The system already does that. . . . So, why do we need legislation?”
Mazanec said, too, that Royce’s bill is misdirected. “There could be a school or nursing home a mile from the facility, but the wind may not blow in that direction,” he added.
Emotional or not, however, the woman who raised the concern about a nearby school during the public hearing was more correct about the distance than she thought.
She need not travel five miles from the proposed Sander site to reach the nearest school. In fact, Energy Commission records show that nearly 15,000 San Diego schoolchildren attend classes at 20 schools within a three-mile radius--the area set out in Royce’s bill--of the proposed plant.
In addition, there are five nursing homes, two hospitals and 19 day-care centers within that area.
Currently, the Energy Commission, which refers to such facilities as “sensitive receptors,” does not list food processing plants in its applications. But Chris Tooker, the Energy Commission’s project manager for Sander plant, said it is likely that there is at least one of those near the Kearny Mesa facility, too.
Tooker said a man who operates a food processing plant came up to him to express concerns about the waste incinerator at the close of Tuesday night’s hearing.