Future Of Facility In Question, Long-Term Contract With Southern California Edison Expires 2018
By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer
July 17, 2012 - Long Beach officials are questioning the future of the local waste-to-energy plant as it comes under new environmental regulation and does not meet the guidelines of California’s new solid waste recycling goals.
The Southeast Resource Recovery Facility (SERRF) is a solid waste processing plant at 120 Pier S Ave. that burns trash from regional municipalities and converts it to power. SERRF is a joint project of the City of Long Beach and the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, established to address the closure of a nearby landfill in 1980 and divert waste from other landfills.
Its services have remained valuable to assist local jurisdictions in meeting the 50 percent landfill diversion rate by 2000, that was mandated by the Integrated Waste Management Act, or Assembly Bill 939, passed in 1989. Cities like Long Beach are able to receive diversion credits for taking up to 10 percent of their solid waste to SERRF.
While its waste diversion processes are still applicable for municipalities under AB 939, they do not apply to the new statewide 75 percent recycling goal. On July 3, Long Beach Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal raised this issue before the city council, noting that there may a problem with “blurring the lines” between the definitions of diversion and recycling.
Mark Oldfield, spokesperson for CalRecycle, told the Business Journal that there is a distinction between recycling and diversion. “We are developing a plan to address the new statewide policy goal established under AB 341 that says not less than 75 percent solid waste generated in the state be source reduced, recycled or composted by the year 2020,” Oldfield said. “CalRecycle, in developing this plan, focused on the three activities explicitly stated in the law, and those are the three.”
Waste-to-energy facilities, daily covering of landfills and using asphalt at landfills are not included in the calculation of the 75 percent goal, according to Oldfield. “That doesn’t affect the diversion programs used in calculating compliance under the integrated waste management act,” he said. CalRecycle will begin hosting public workshops on the statewide recycling goal as early as the third Tuesday of September 2012.
Where SERRF does not meet the requirements of one state goal, the facility is required to take action based on other environmental regulation. Assembly Bill 32, known as the California Global Warming Solutions Act, will begin enforcing polluting agencies to reduce their carbon footprint in a way that collectively results in reducing greenhouse gas levels to where they were statewide in 1990. Enforcement begins in 2013.
According to Charlie Tripp, director of SERRF, discussions with the agency enforcing AB 32, the California Air Quality Resources Board (ARB), on whether the facility should be included in AB 32 enforcement is ongoing. Tripp argued that California regulators are not in line with the rest of the world’s view of waste-to-energy as a means to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
“Everywhere else in the world, this technology is looked at as a reducer of greenhouse gas emissions,” Tripp said. “All of the countries that signed the Kyoto Agreement looked at waste-to-energy implementation as a means to reduce greenhouse gas. The EPA did a study and said waste-to-energy plants reduce greenhouse gas eight times more than if you took that same amount of waste and put it in a landfill.” This argument has been made with ARB, which disagrees with the study, Tripp said.
“The Air Resources Board put forward a model of how much greenhouse gases are actually released from a landfill that didn’t make sense and wasn’t good science, in our minds,” he explained. “Basically they were saying that landfills don’t give off that much greenhouse gas over the life of a landfill facility. We disagree. What happens is, when you look at a lifecycle analysis of SERRF, and compare it to the landfill, their proposed model doesn’t make it look like we are a big reducer of greenhouse gases.”
Dave Clegern, spokesperson for ARB, said facilities that produce more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year are covered by AB 32 and must find ways of implementing technology to reduce their carbon footprint or purchase carbon offset credits from the state. According to ARB, the total CO2 emissions from SERRF in 2008, 2009 and 2010 has been above 300,000 metric tons.
“At this point, they are covered and there is no exemption available,” Clegern said. “That may change at some point, but at this point it has not. . . . The fact that a site claims that it has established an offset doesn’t really carry much weight with us. We have very rigid protocols that must be met, and as far as I know there has not been an actual offset proposal submitted.”
The city is currently exploring conducting an analysis to show greenhouse gas emissions would increase if SERRF diverted all of its received waste to a landfill, according to Tripp.
SERRF Future In Question
Southern California Edison has a 30-year purchasing contract, set to expire in 2018, to buy the power produced by SERFF. City officials are still unsure what will happen to the facility once the contract concludes.
“There will be a new life for SERRF after that,” Chris Garner, director of Long Beach Gas and Oil, told the city council on July 3. “That’s what we’re going to be looking at for the next few years, what that life is.”
According to Tripp, a 25-year report was conducted about 1993 to review the financial viability of SERRF through its contract with Edison. The agreement with Edison includes requirements and damages if power production slows or stops, and the report showed that if tipping fees didn’t increase starting in the 2010s, SERRF would begin operating at a loss.
If SERRF were to shut down, Tripp said the amount of greenhouse gas produced by landfills would increase by eight times, without including pollution created from transporting the trash to outlying dumps. From start-up through December 2011, SERRF has “reduced the volume of waste entering a landfill by 12.4 million cubic yards. That is equal to an area the size of a football field piled 1.76 miles high with solid waste,” according to the City of Long Beach.
To temporarily mitigate the issue, a reserve fund was established and paid into during the high-earnings times of SERRF’s life. Today, that reserve holds about $30 million. “We’re able to operate by spending down that reserve a little bit each year through 2018,” Tripp said. “That was always the plan, and the plan before we refinanced the bonds in 2003. That’s where we are now.”
In the meantime, tipping fees per dump load per truck have decreased with the economic downturn, from $52 in 2006 to $48 in 2008. Looking forward, the biggest impact on what tipping fees will be by 2018 is the closure of Puente Hills landfill in November 2013.
“Nobody has been successful in speculating what that’s going to do to tip fees,” Tripp said. “Puente Hills, at one time, was taking 60 percent of L.A. County’s waste. There are estimates for how much the plan for the trash to be rail hauled to the desert down in Imperial Valley will cost, and there may be cheaper options.”
Now, for what Tripp called, “the real big kicker in all of this” – the amount of trash generated since the economic crisis has decreased significantly. Tripp attributed this to fewer discretionary dollars for households – less purchasing means less trash – and the slowdown in the construction sector. On top of that, a portion of AB 32 went into effect on July 1 mandating that businesses and commercial properties that produce more than four cubic yards of waste must recycle.
“It really remains to be seen whether we will get back to generating trash to the levels we were prior to this whole economic fallout,” Tripp said.
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