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.
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.
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
Raggio calculates that the incinerators would recover their start-up costs in less than five years.
He said he will ask Miller, the public works director, to resume the feasibility study recommended in the 1987 report by early next year, as soon as the city completes the gas collection system replacement under way in Scholl Canyon.
All four of Raggio's City Council colleagues said Tuesday they favor Raggio's proposal.
But whether waste-to-energy plants are health hazards remains a question. South Coast Air Quality Management District officials in charge of monitoring the Commerce plant cited the plant last year for "repeated violations of district rules concerning mass emissions of air pollutants," said Robert Pease, an AQMD senior engineering manager.
Arguing that AQMD standards are too stringent and that the Commerce incinerator's pollution level is marginal compared to other waste disposal solutions, plant officials appealed the decision.
The AQMD hearing board granted the plant a variance to continue operating, but the AQMD has appealed the board's decision, and a final ruling is expected at a hearing scheduled for next month.
"It's tough for incinerator plants to meet our standards," said Pease, "but not impossible." An incinerator plant in compliance with AQMD standards would not be entirely pollution-free, he explained, but the health risk would be so small that "it would not pose a threat to the surrounding community."
Wil Baca, spokesman for the California Alliance in Defense of Residential Environments (DARE)--which was formed to oppose incinerators in the Los Angeles basin--believes the AQMD findings at the Commerce plant are reason enough to shelve any further attempt to build similar facilities in the region.
"The commerce facility ought to serve as a big history lesson," he said. "It has demonstrated quite adequately that it can't meet current requirements for controlling emissions in the basin. If they can't meet standards set forth in 1987, when the plant was built, it's even more improbable that a new plant will meet the much more stringent standards in place today."
Moreover, Baca said a new incinerator plant would be economically unfeasible because a state law requires Southern California Edison Co. to pay the Commerce plant a high price for its electricity--currently more than three times the market rate--but the state no longer subsidizes new incinerator projects. Even so, Baca pointed out, the Commerce plant operates in the red.
Avila acknowledged that the Commerce plant is paid a high rate for its electricity and is not a profitable operation, but trash disposal, he argues, is a problem that transcends economics.
"I don't know of a single recycling program in the U.S. that doesn't lose money, but nobody complains," said Avila. "Recycling is necessary to offset the impact of landfilling and of truck-hauling trash. Waste-to-energy is the same thing. Shouldn't it be subsidized if it's necessary to solve a regional or even national problem?"
Perhaps even more troublesome to Glendale, however, is the political showdown the incinerator proposal is likely to generate.
"I don't know how Raggio thinks he can move that kind of project," Baca said. "He can expect at least 15 organizations that I know of camping on his doorstep the minute he makes a serious proposal."
While Raggio said he expects some opposition from the "Greenpeace types that come to demonstrations driving beat-up Volkswagens that put out more pollutants than the projects they complain about," Scholl Canyon's community leaders say they are willing to give the councilman a chance.
"I'm aware of the shortage of landfill sites in the area," said David Weaver, president of the Glenoaks Canyon Homeowners Assn., formerly the Scholl Canyon Homeowners Assn. "Building an incinerator is the most logical solution, as long as it doesn't release pollutants in the air--and technology indicates it can be done."
Joe Bridges, the association's vice president, said: "I know a lot of people are emotional about incinerators, but I don't know enough about it. I do think it's worth looking at the possibility."
If there were no environmental problems, he said, "it sure would help. We're running out of landfill space, and we need an alternative."
Other local homeowners may not be so receptive to Raggio's proposal. "At this point I would be opposed to an incinerator because there are too many unanswered questions," said Chris Rudd, who also sits on the homeowner association's board of directors.
"If the people in South-Central L.A. turned it down, it must be for some reason. The council will have to work very hard to convince me that the incinerator will not contaminate the air we breathe."