Refuse Plant's Pollutants Are Within Limits, Tests Indicate

Times Staff Writer

The amounts of major pollutants coming from the city's new refuse-to-energy plant are well within limits established by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, recent tests by a private consultant indicate.

As expected, the tests also detected minute amounts of dioxins and furans, which are known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Plant officials plan to complete a study in the next two to three months to detail any danger the cancer-causing chemicals may pose to the community, Project Manager Michael Selna said last week.

The first battery of tests were performed by a private laboratory hired by the plant, which has been operating since December on a temporary permit from the AQMD. Air samples were taken in May and June.

The regulatory agency is reviewing the test results as well as those of its own air quality tests, AQMD spokesman Ron Ketcham said this week. The AQMD eventually will issue a full operating permit if the plant meets the district's emissions standards.

Below Permitted Levels

The agency regulates air quality in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties and portions of San Bernardino County.

The private tests indicated that carbon monoxide emissions from the plant were measured at 2.7 pounds an hour, while the plant is permitted to release 18 pounds an hour.

The tests also indicated that emissions of oxides of sulfur, oxides of nitrogen, hydrocarbons, particulates and dust were all below permitted levels, according to a report by Energy Systems Associates of Tustin.

The AQMD will soon establish the parameters of the risk assessment study to define any danger the community faces from dioxins and furans released by the plant, Selna said.

Selna, though, said the emissions of dioxins and furans are so low that, based on previous health studies, they probably would not create an increased health risk of even one case of cancer per million people. The contaminants are produced during the combustion process in the plant's incinerator. They are a major concern of those who claim mass-burn incinerators are dangerous.

"If they can't pass our risk assessment, they don't get a permit," Ketcham said.

Selna said he stands behind his plant. "Eating a char-broiled steak once a week has a much higher health risk," he said.

No Toxic Wastes

The waste plant sits on a six-acre site that is surrounded by industry, about half a mile west of the Santa Ana Freeway. The nearest residents live several blocks from the plant.

Jointly developed by Commerce and the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, the plant employs a state-of-the-art incinerator that is capable of burning 420 tons of "typical municipal" garbage a day, Selna said. Commerce produces about 450 tons a day. The plant does not accept toxic waste.

The heat from the incinerator turns water to steam, which drives a generator.

The 11.5-megawatt plant began producing commercial electricity last Dec. 8. It sells 10 megawatts of electricity to Southern California Edison Co. and uses the remainder to power plant operations. Ten megawatts is enough electricity to power 20,000 homes.

The plant has been operating under a construction permit since December. It was in a testing phase until mid-May, during which time shutdowns for modifications and maintenance were routine, Selna said.

Bugs Being Worked Out

Some of the bugs are still being worked out. The most recent shutdown occurred Aug. 7 and lasted through Thursday morning so workers could replace a boiler tube, Selna said. The plant has been shut down for repairs and maintenance 30% of the time since start-up, he said.

"It's a pretty complex facility, so you would expect to have these failures from time to time," said Selna, who added that the average operational level for such a plant is about 80%.

Few complaints have been registered since the plant fired up. Selna said he has received several complaints of excessive noise and a single complaint about the smell of burning garbage. Ketcham of the AQMD said the agency hasn't received any complaints, which figures into the decision to grant an operating permit.

"We cannot permit or allow an operation to create a continual public nuisance," Ketcham said.

Plant construction began in March, 1985, financed by $44 million in revenue bonds and contributions from the city, the county Sanitation Districts and the California Waste Management Board. The total cost of the plant, including finance charges, was $50 million. It is the first refuse-to-energy plant in the county.

Sophisticated Equipment

More than 60 similar plants already operate in other parts of the nation, and about 250 plants are in operation in Japan and another 250 in Europe, Selna said. But the Commerce plant differs because of its sophisticated air pollution control equipment.

Selna said the plant uses two pollution control techniques that have proved effective separately but have never been combined as they are here.

"The reason for building it was to demonstrate the technology and the air pollution controls here in Southern California," Selna said.

Two other refuse-to-energy plants are under construction in California. One is being built by Long Beach on nearby Terminal Island and the other is under construction near Modesto, said Chris Peck, spokesman for the California Waste Management Board. About 30 others are being planned in California.

Recent efforts to build three other refuse-to-energy plants in Southern California have failed. The proposals were met with strong community opposition, spurred by fear of pollutants. The directors of the county Sanitation Districts voted last month to drop plans to build a waste-to-energy plant at the Spadra landfill in Pomona; Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in June announced that the city abandoned plans to build a LANCER (Los Angeles City Energy Recovery) incinerator in South-Central Los Angeles, and the state Energy Commission in April rejected a plan for a trash incineration plant in the San Gabriel Valley city of Irwindale.

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