A rendering of the proposed Anaheim Sustainability Center.

A proposal to build a facility that turns food waste into electricity in Anaheim is drawing heavy opposition from nearby residents, who fear the energy plant, which will be within 1,500 feet of homes and an elementary school, could expose their families to environmental and safety hazards.

Worries include the possibility of a fire or explosion from a methane gas leak, potential groundwater pollution from the plant’s runoff, and the chance that emissions from the facility would harm children. Opponents point to specific examples of leaks and explosions in plants elsewhere.

Meanwhile, advocates for the plant, called the Anaheim Sustainability Center, say such concerns are overblown and that leaks and explosions are extremely rare. They say the process used in these types of facilities, called anaerobic digestion, is not new and is already used in several countries.

Using anaerobic digestion to process food waste solves the problem of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gasses, being released into the atmosphere as organic material decomposes in landfills. In anaerobic digestion plants, microorganisms feast on the waste in large water tanks and the methane produced is captured and converted into electricity or natural gas.

The proposal for the Anaheim center, submitted by the Canadian firm Anaergia, estimates that the facility is capable of producing nine megawatts of power at any moment in time.

Opponents, including dozens of residents who live close to the proposed site on Anaheim’s border with Placentia and Yorba Linda, turned out in force to an Anaheim Planning Commission meeting last month.

Craig Florer, a resident of Yorba Linda and retired engineer who says he has worked on anaerobic digestion projects, supports the use of anaerobic digestion but opposes the project.

“It’s in a local zone of the Santa Ana River…and it’s in an active seismic zone…1,200 feet from homes, and 1,800 feet from schools where children are still growing and developing,” Florer told the Planning Commission during the Aug. 22 meeting.

“It’s a great idea – I support the idea, but they couldn’t have picked a worse place,” said Florer.

Chances of Accident Are Small, But Real

The proposed plant would be located on Lakeview Avenue in Anaheim on a 2.2-acre property surrounded by office space and a self-storage facility.

A map of the area surrounding the site of the proposed Anaheim Sustainability Center, which is outlined in red.
A map of the area surrounding the site of the proposed Anaheim Sustainability Center, which is outlined in red.

Waste that ends up at the plant will first be processed at a nearby Republic Services facility, where the trash is compressed and food is separated from other types of waste. Each day, 45 truck loads would be transported to the Anaergia plant.

Once the waste is inside the plant, an air treatment system and sealed doors will trap any potential odors said Jim Ambroso, the senior vice president of Anaregia’s Carlsbad-based operations. He describes the anaerobic digestion process as a “slow bubbling,” with the pressure inside the tank at only 0.6 pounds per square inch, about 50 times less than a bicycle tire.

Among the safety concerns cited by residents is the possibility of a leak; or worse, an explosion or fire caused by methane gas during this process.

In 2013, an anaerobic digester in the United Kingdom leaked all over nearby farmland and into rivers. The same facility had another accident in 2014, when an explosion caused a digester to collapse, according to news reports.

However, despite incidents like these, the chances of a methane gas explosion or leak is highly unlikely, provided a facility is built and maintained properly and workers are well-trained.

Methane, which makes up about 60 percent of the biogas produced by the digester, cannot ignite unless it is mixed with a large amount of oxygen. And because the pressure inside the tank is greater than pressure outside the tank, it’s more likely that gases would flow out of the tank than for oxygen to push its way inside.

Furthermore, because methane is lighter than air, in the event that methane does leak from the tank, it would immediately float upward and dissipate into the atmosphere. For an explosion to occur, the methane would need to accumulate in a confined space.

Ambroso points to strict regulations by the National Fire Protection Association, which mandate that any potential source of ignition remain far from methane and require safety devices to stop a fire from spreading, should one occur.

He added that any cracks or leaks in the tank’s thick, concrete exterior would be visible and almost immediately detected by the facility’s monitoring program. The system would then siphon the methane toward a flare, to burn off the gas and prevent further leakage.

A 2012 study published by the Institute of Chemical Engineers that examined 36 serious accidents at anaerobic digestion facilities worldwide concluded that all of the incidents could have been avoided with better safety training and procedures. In many situations, explosions or accidents occurred during construction or initial testing.

Five of those accidents were methane explosions, and in each instance industry standards had not been followed, according to the study.

In another example, four men were killed in a 2005 incident in which a reception tank for organic waste had its safety features manually disabled, allowing a dangerous concentration of hydrogen sulfide to escape and kill all four workers instantaneously.

“I realize the likelihood of an accident is small, but the consequences are huge,” Florer said. “They should have picked a less populated area.”

Residents are also skeptical of Anaergia’s claim that the facility would produce no odor, pointing to the process of loading and unloading the waste in and out of the plant.

A small percentage, less than one percent, of the biogas produced by the anaerobic digestion process contains gases other than methane or carbon dioxide, such as hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs.

The entire facility would have an air treatment system that includes a three-stage chemical scrubber that neutralizes odors before releasing it to the outdoors, Ambroso said.

“Are you saying it’s 100 percent effective, or is it 98.5 [percent]? Have you measured it?” Asked Planning Commissioner John Seymour at last month’s meeting.

“It’s difficult to measure because our noses are so sensitive,” said Ambroso, drawing jeers from the crowd.

The facility would also be equipped with devices that monitor emissions and automatically send reports to regulators every fifteen minutes, Ambroso said.

A Pressing Need

Whether its composting, mulch or anaerobic digestion facilities, California will need to invest in new waste treatment infrastructure if it wants to achieve its goals for greenhouse gas reduction.

The state sends approximately 30 million tons of waste to landfills each year, of which more than 30 percent could be used for compost or mulch, according to the state recycling and waste management agency, or CalRecycle.

Orange County households dispose of more than 4.9 million tons of food waste each year.

Meanwhile, the state is aiming to recycle 75 percent of all solid waste and divert half of its organic waste from landfills by 2020.

A new state law, which went into effect in January and will be phased in over the next five years, requires local governments and businesses to recycle any food, plant or other organic waste they produce.

The state Air Resources Board is also considering a new goal as part of its climate change scoping plan of a 90 percent reduction of organic waste in landfills by 2025.

As of October 2015, there were 12 anaerobic digestion facilities operating statewide, with another nine projects in construction or pending approvals, including the one in Compton where inedible food waste from Kroger grocery stores is turned into electricity.

“If the plan is adopted as proposed, there’s no question that we’re going to need more infrastructure built,” said Clark Williams, an environmental program manager with CalRecycle.

Although the city’s initial study of the project found the project would have few environment impacts, residents, through their efforts at several city council meetings, have forced the city to commission a more extensive impact study.

The city has hired a consultant, Placeworks, to conduct the environmental review.

Transparency Questions

“Our intent has always been to have the public involved, we’re not trying to hide anything or slide anything through,” Ambroso said.

Still, many residents say they did not hear about the project until about a week before the hearing.

They also question why plans for the project were not publicly discussed earlier, given that the city council approved an agreement in 2013 promising to purchase energy from the company if the sustainability center is built.

“Other cities have put their anaerobic digestion plants at the outskirts of town and near landfills. Rather than put it in the middle of a residential area, my appeal is to relocate the facility to an outlying area,” said Scott Morton, a Yorba Linda resident at last week’s City Council meeting.

Anaergia initially explored building the anaerobic digestion plant next to the Republic Services facility but found the property was too small. Ambroso said the current site allows the facility to stay within Anaheim’s electrical grid.

“I can’t say we have another site in mind,” said Ambroso.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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