Plasco Withdraws from Gonzales and the Salinas Valley
by Kevin Collins
Plasco Energy Group has announced that they are withdrawing from their arrangement with the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority to build a plasma arc-pyrolysis waste to energy gasification plant near the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales. The plant proposal for the Johnson Canyon landfill site claimed to be able to process municipal solid waste into a "synthgas" which would then have been burned in conventional fuel to electricity generators on site.
The proposal has been highly controversial, especially with people in the Salinas Valley and with environmental advocates including the Sierra Club. We found implausible the claims that no significant air or water pollution would be created by this complex facility. We regard this as an experimental technology that would process garbage into electricity and secondary waste products.
Gonzales and Salinas Valley activists demonstrate outside the Sallinas Valley Solid Waste Authority's August 16th, 2012 meeting in Gonzales
Plasco has only one operational plant of this type. That facility near Ottawa Canada has received certificates to operate from the Canadian authorities. However there are reports of a series of exceedences of pollution standards at that facility as well as other problems. No plant of this type currently operates in the United States.
The Ventana Chapter had submitted comments on the Initial Study for the EIR for the Salinas Valley Plasco proposal, and we were awaiting the release of the EIR, which we planned to formally comment upon. The EIR was apparently delayed by the requirement for a biological survey that could only be conducted in the spring.
What follows is a description of the legal and lobbying efforts surrounding this proposal. It is a complex story, but it demonstrates the degree of focus necessary for Sierra Club volunteer advocates to be effective in their work to protect the public interest in a clean and healthy environment.
In 2010 Plasco had received "pre-certification" from the California Energy Commission for its proposed Gonzales plant as a "Conversion Technology." This decision would have allowed Plasco to sell the electricity produced at their plasma arc plant for a premium price based upon the State's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. That certification was based upon another opinion from CalRecycle (California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery). That CalRecycle opinion incorrectly interpreted the definition of "gasification" in Public Resources Code section 40117.
In a May 23, 2012 letter, Carol Mortensen, Director of CalRecycle wrote to Alisdair McLean of Plasco to explain that her agency's original opinion that Plasco's plant would meet the legal definition of "gasification" was premature, and based upon the description of the plant, her agency could not come to the conclusion that the project would meet the statutory definition of "gasification."
Plasco asserted that their Gonzales facility would not be profitable without the Renewable Energy Portfolio advantage in pricing the sale of their electricity.
Plasco then launched into an extensive lobbying campaign that included Governor Brown's office and members of the State Legislature. Plasco sought special "carve out" legislation from a number of area legislators. This would have, in at least one case, made the thermal conversion of municipal solid waste eligible for definition as a renewable resource only in Monterey County.
Fortunately Assembly Member Luis Alejo, who represents the Salinas Valley, opposed this attempt at carve out legislation, and the legislative session ended without Plasco receiving the special treatment it had sought.
At this point Plasco announced their intent to abandon the project. It is not clear to the Ventana Chapter that this story is over. The Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority could possibly go to another similar company to attempt to build a waste to energy plant. Plasco could change its mind and await the completion of the EIR that has already been contracted for.
As for the larger picture about the problems with municipal solid waste, the Sierra Club understands that landfills cause problems and we are not opposed to innovation.
We regarded the Plasco facility as dangerous because of its intense complexity and vulnerability to system failures. This plant would have inevitably discharged air and water pollution. Municipal solid waste is full of toxic materials from improperly discarded batteries to the metals used in the dies on colored packaging, to the many kinds of dangerous plastics such as PVC. In this country we waste huge volumes of useful materials in unnecessary packaging and other "throw away" products. The Sierra Club does not regard this material as a fuel supply, but simply as waste that needs to be reduced at its source and completely recycled when it is no longer useful. This is the safe path to the problem we have with landfills.
The activists in Gonzales deserve a lot of credit for their victory in protecting their town from a dangerous proposal. People threw themselves into this fight to win and they prevailed. The Sierra Club is proud to have been of assistance.
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