'Ironman' Councilman Now Wants to Clear the Air : Politics: Robert Benz, still under fire for his role in an annual beach beer-drinking contest, points to his recent commendation for a pollution-control system he helped design.


Hermosa Beach City Councilman Robert (Bergie) Benz, targeted in a recall effort for his role in a beach beer-drinking fest on the Fourth of July, has captured a different kind of media attention in recent weeks.

Benz, a mechanical engineer who helps run the California branch of his father's Portland, Ore.-based company, Benz Air Engineering Co., received commendations in two trade magazines last month for a pollution-control system he helped design for a boiler at Tuftex Carpet Mills in Santa Fe Springs.

Benz provided details of his pollution-control system at the same time he tried to atone for drinking on the beach by agreeing to pay a fine. But the 34-year-old councilman insisted the timing was coincidental.

"The real irony is I was thinking about quitting (the council) three months ago because I don't have time," Benz said. "But now I can't. I can't give (my opponents) the satisfaction."

The flamboyant councilman has drawn increasing criticism from school board officials, the mayor and residents for his support of the Ironman, an unusual Fourth of July endurance event that requires participants to run a mile, paddle a mile on a surfboard and then guzzle a six-pack of beer without vomiting.

This year's participants staged the beer-chugging portion of the contest on the beach, in violation of city law. Although police broke up the event, they did not issue any tickets, saying they didn't actually see anybody breaking the law.

In an attempt to calm the uproar over his participation in the event, Benz last week asked a Hermosa Beach police officer to cite him for drinking on the beach, a misdemeanor carrying a $271 fine.

The same day Benz asked for the ticket, he touted the pollution-control system that he helped design. He finished installing the system at the carpet mill in April.

The project, featuring a pollution-control device called a non-selective catalytic reduction system, was funded by both the carpet dyeing company and Southern California Edison Co.

The system uses a catalytic converter similar to that used in automobiles to reduce the carpet mill's emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx)--key ingredients in smog. The system allowed the carpet mill to reduce its production of NOx by more than 99% while improving the boiler's efficiency, Benz said.

"The traditional thinking out there is that when you're retrofitting boilers to reduce emissions, you must take an efficiency penalty," Benz said. "But we think pollution control can be attained while increasing efficiency and providing a pay-back."

Gulam Samdani, associate editor of Chemical Engineering, one of the two monthly magazines that carried brief stories about the project last month, described it as groundbreaking.

"What drew my attention is that they are transferring one technology to another area," Samdani said. "Although they aren't the only ones doing that, they have done it successfully."

Benz and his partner, Galen Brown, are seeking patents for the device that holds the catalyst in the boiler's stack as well as for a computer program that closely regulates the amount of air entering the boiler's combustion chamber. They are also in the process of creating their own company, Benz and Brown Technologies, from which they plan to market pollution-control devices.

Although other companies have designed similar systems, Benz said theirs is notable because it is less costly than others and does not use potentially harmful chemicals such as ammonia. Edison's decision to install an ammonia-based pollution-control system at its Redondo Beach power plant was opposed by many nearby residents who feared an industrial accident.

Edison contributed $15,000 toward the carpet mill project, which is one of 55 pollution-control projects receiving Edison funds. The utility spearheads such research to help its business customers meet environmental requirements. Without the assistance, businesses might find anti-pollution costs so steep that they would be forced to move away, leaving the utility with fewer customers, said John Bunnell, research manager for Edison's customer systems program.

Although Edison officials are still evaluating the carpet mill project's effectiveness, preliminary findings appear promising. But they add, far more research is needed before Edison would consider using a similar pollution-control system on its own boilers.

"You can't take a technology for a small boiler and assume it will work for our large-scale boilers," said Michael Ozima, who managed Edison's involvement in the Tuftex project. "This was strictly a start . . . but it is a promising technology."

Larry Johnson, project manager for Edison's NOx reduction program, agreed, pointing out that Edison's boilers are about 200 times as large as the one Benz worked on and that they operate at much higher temperatures.

"I don't want to pooh-pooh this technology," Johnson said. "It might very well be viable down the road for a large power plant. When it's proven and becomes commercially viable, we'll consider it. But it's clearly not viable at this time."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World