Energy Plant, AQMD Each Make Gains at Hearing

Times Staff Writer

The operators of a Commerce refuse-to-energy plant and officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) each won concessions last week when their case was decided in El Monte.

The district's hearing board granted the high-tech garbage incineration plant a temporary variance from district emission standards, enabling it to continue operating. And the district received a commitment that $500,000 in improvements would be made to the plant's pollution control system.

Both sides have been accused of moving slowly to ensure that the county's first refuse-to-energy plant does not contribute excessively to the area's smog problem. The length and other conditions of the variance will be settled at a hearing on Thursday.

In voting against the variance last week, board member James D. Joyce said plant officials could have moved faster to meet emissions limits. He also called the district "negligent" for not taking sufficient action to ensure the limits would be promptly met. Possible emissions violations were detected as far back as April, 1987, according to a district memo introduced as evidence during the hearing, but the plant was first cited for excessive emissions in January of this year.

Board members Harold V. Brown and B.C. Escobar chided district staff members for being too "nice," then joined with two other board members to approve the variance.

Environmentalist Wil Baca was more forceful.

District Called 'a Partner in Crime'

"It's obvious the AQMD has been a partner in crime in this thing from the very beginning," Baca said in an interview. "It's clear that the AQMD allowed them to continue the violations until we got in there and raised hell."

Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal Allard (D-Los Angeles) also attacked the plant's commitment to meeting emissions standards and the district's resolve to compel it to do so.

"This is another example of a local agency bending over backwards to support business and really ignoring the health and safety of the public," she said.

In addition, Allard, whose district includes Commerce, said she opposes the variance and would investigate whether it can be overturned. The hearing board is an independent body that adjudicates district cases.

In April, 1987, a district inspector found that the plant's monitors had detected excessive emissions of nitrogen oxides, but no citation was issued. In their defense, district officials noted that the monitors had not been certified as accurate; to be used for enforcement purposes, the readings must be certified. The monitors were not certified by the district until October, 1988.

AQMD officials denied that they had dragged their feet. But they acknowledged that they did not arrange for certified, continuous emissions tests after the early indication of possible violations.

"We pushed them very hard to get those monitors certified," said Robert R. Pease, the district's senior air quality engineering manager.

Commerce project manager Michael Selna said his staff took appropriate action to certify the monitors and meet other permit requirements.

Incinerator's Idiosyncrasies

He said plant officials need more time to meet emissions standards, because they are tailoring innovative pollution control equipment to the idiosyncrasies of a garbage incinerator. The plant was the first of its type in the United States to use the pollution control equipment that it does.

Selna said he was surprised when the district denied the plant's final operating permits in January for exceeding emissions limits, among other things. He said he had contacted district staff members and did not realize that they were planning to move against the plant. The action forced plant officials to seek the variance.

"We believed there would be time for adjustment of those (emission) levels," Selna said.

The plant, which fired up in late 1986, was jointly developed and built by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and the City of Commerce. The plant can burn up to 420 tons of "typical municipal" garbage a day, producing enough electricity for about 20,000 homes. The electricity is sold to Southern California Edison Co.

No Reports Received

Baca, the environmentalist, said he was taken aback in December, 1987, when he went to district offices in El Monte and asked to see the plant's monthly emissions reports. He was told that the district had not received the reports, which are required by the plant's construction permit.

Pease said the district had requested the reports, but plant officials were slow to respond.

Commerce plant manager Ed Wheless said the district requested the reports in November, 1987, but his staff could not pull them together until May.

"It was simply a lot of data to go through," he said. "We were diligently working on it."

Wheless said he did not immediately send the reports after start-up, as required by the construction permit, because the monitors had not been certified and could not not be assumed to be accurate.

When the reports were first submitted, they did not contain hourly emission levels. New reports with the more detailed data were submitted several days later, officials said.

Those reports indicated that the incinerator had been exceeding hourly emission and other standards since March, 1987. But again, those readings were recorded by monitors that had not been fully approved as accurate by the district.

Monitors Certified

In October, 1988, the plant's monitors for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide were certified. Those monitors showed that the plant exceeded hourly emissions standards for 40 days during the period Oct. 27, 1988, to Dec. 30, 1988.

During the same period, daily standards were exceeded just once. In addition, the district noted that plant operators had failed to have a carbon monoxide monitor certified in a timely manner or to submit a study to show what effect minute amounts of toxic emissions would have on the surrounding community.

In late January, the district denied the plant's permanent operating permits.

Plant officials have submitted a preliminary health-risk assessment to the district, and the carbon monoxide monitor is being reviewed for certification, officials said.

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