Take an old couch, a few radioactive smoke detectors, and a mountain of soiled Pampers, and throw them in a big airtight box. Then cook them at a temperature four times what you’d find on the surface of Mercury. After a while, there’s nothing left but a pile of ash and some synthetic natural gas, which you can burn to generate electricity. Well, that’s not quite right. You also have dioxins, furans, mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides — a who’s who of poisons and carcinogens that will put you in the ground faster than you can say, “What’s that funny lump in my breast?” But if you’re the city of Alameda, that’s just fine, since you don’t intend to build your big garbage pressure cooker within city limits anyway. Instead, you’ll place it safely across the estuary in San Leandro. Sure, the residents of the nearby Mulford Gardens neighborhood may not be happy, but think of the upside: Now you have enough juice to power all the detached yuppie homes that will inevitably be built at Alameda Point, one of the Bay Area’s most valuable pieces of undeveloped real estate.
At least, that’s how Bradley Angel sees it. He’s the director of the environmental group Greenaction, and a few weeks ago he discovered that officials with the city’s municipal utility were quietly exploring the feasibility of a largely experimental new method of generating power, known as municipal solid waste gasification. Having worked long hours to shut down the Integrated Environmental Systems (IES) medical waste incinerator in East Oakland in 2001, he wasn’t about to let Alameda build a new waste incinerator. When he started poking around, he claims, Alameda Power and Telecom officials lied to keep him from attending a public meeting about their plan. In fact, he says, the utility has systematically tried to hide the toxic ramifications of its new experiment from day one. Angel has now vowed to put a stop to it.
Utility officials insist that they always have been forthright with the public, and theirs is merely a preliminary study of one of many options. Bradley Angel, they suggest, is getting all worked up over nothing. “We haven’t finished studying how we want to meet our power needs,” utility project manager Tom Barham says. “So we have nothing to recommend.” So which is it? If you conduct a two-year, $500,000 study of an odious and potentially dangerous project, is that merely a prelude to building it? Or is a cigar sometimes just a cigar?
This is a particularly delicate issue for Alameda, which prides itself on getting 80 percent of its energy from “green” sources — at least, if you consider damming the North Fork of the Stanislaus River environmentally friendly. Twenty years ago, Alameda citizens rejected a proposal to build an earlier municipal garbage incinerator, citing concerns about toxic emissions. When Angel took on the IES incinerator, he had an important ally in the form of Alameda City Councilman Tony Daysog, who worried that the prevailing winds would blow charred medical waste over the island. So when Daysog heard that his former colleague was raising a fuss about the gasification project, he immediately began to rethink its merits. “I think we’ve established a really good track record in the field of alternative energy,” he says, “so I don’t want us to take one step forward and two steps back in terms of releasing dioxin.”
But Alameda’s gotta get more power somehow. Now that the Navy has decommissioned the Naval Air Station, the city dreams of turning 770 acres into fancy-schmancy housing and business parks, and thousands of new homeowners will need electricity. In addition, the utility’s reliance on power sources scores of miles away has left it more dependent on PG&E’s transmission grid than many municipal power companies. Consequently, Alameda was subject to the same rolling blackouts as everyone else during the great power crisis of 2001. Alameda Power and Telecom officials are determined not to let that happen again, so for the last two years, they’ve been investigating options to build a local power plant capable of providing up to 20 megawatts by 2005.
Although plenty of ideas have been bandied about, only two have emerged as credible options: building a conventional natural gas-fired plant, or rolling the dice with the new gasification technology. The key to the safety of gasification, utility spokesman Matt McCabe says, is the lack of oxygen in the process. Unlike incinerators, which burn garbage in the presence of oxygen, gasification superheats the trash in an airtight container, limiting the presence of one of dioxin’s key elements. That sounds great, but according to a study by the North-Carolina-based Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that gasification actually produces 83 percent more dioxin and furans than incineration. And the Web site of Brightstar Environmental, one of the companies that has offered to build the plant, acknowledges that dioxin is a by-product.
Dick McClay is the point man for Advanced Energy Strategies, the firm hired by Alameda to study the gasification project. According to him, the Blue Ridge study doesn’t take into account the new technologies being developed by Brightstar and other firms, and its data may simply be out of date. “Our interest is in what will be, not what has been in the past,” he says. In addition, McClay says, when you consider that the project could steer hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage away from landfills, waste incineration might actually be a boon to the environment.
But McClay’s assurances would carry a lot more weight if the utility actually intended to build the plant in Alameda. Instead, it plans to set it up downwind in San Leandro, near a solid waste transfer station where garbage trucks from Oakland and Hayward converge. You certainly can see the logic behind siting the plant near the station. Yet bringing new power to pricey new homes by building a waste incinerator in a neighborhood that is already near a garbage warehouse and a sewage treatment plant seems a little impolitic.
Still, what’s the big deal? As utility board member Sebastian Baldassarre argues, it’s just a damn study, right? But Bradley Angel says utility officials are doing much more than merely studying the option — they’re actively pursuing the project under the auspices of a dispassionate inquiry. After all, you don’t spend two years and half a million bucks studying something only to abandon it at the last minute. Angel asserts that, in all this time, no one at Alameda Power and Telecom has honestly informed the public about the potentially lethal by-products of the plant.
Angel says his own experience trying to get basic information from the utility exemplifies this bad faith. He had heard about a public meeting that was scheduled to discuss the project in early October, but claims that when he tried to find out more details, utility officials first denied that the meeting was going to take place, then lied to him about when it was and what it was about. Finally, he claims, they suggested that since he doesn’t live in Alameda, it was none of his business. “The tactic they’ve taken since Greenaction found out about it is to deny that it’s anything but in the initial stages, to keep us away from information, and to continue to put out misinformation,” he says. “They’re claiming they’re not pushing it, but they are pushing it. They’re claiming that it’s at the preliminary stages, but it’s not.”
When asked about Angel’s claims, utility representative McCabe got offended and replied, “I know of no such effort to mislead anyone. I have spoken to Mr. Angel myself about those concerns and asked him to provide details of what he claims happened, so we can address it, and he has not replied.” And McClay denied that utility officials haven’t discussed the potential emissions with the public: “There was discussion of dioxin at least one of those meetings, because there were some people knowledgeable in chemistry among the public. The answer was that we don’t have a definitive answer, but it’s an issue, and it has to be investigated.”
A review of McClay’s report on the gasification project, as well as minutes from public meetings, indicates that both men may be right. Alameda Power and Telecom officials have mentioned that the plant comes with its share of emissions, but their discussion has been cursory and euphemistic. Under the report’s “emissions” section, McClay simply wrote, “The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has not established guidelines for emissions from a plant using synthetic gas.” And during one public meeting last year, in response to a question about possible by-products, his response was summarized as “Generating power from the synthetic gas produced from [municipal solid waste] does result in some emissions.”
Utility officials plan to issue their recommendation in February or March. But if they decide they want to build this new plant, they’re going to have to be considerably more upfront to get it past the public. Virtually the only way to finance the construction is with a bond offering, and only the Alameda City Council has the authority to issue one. And according to Daysog, the council is disinclined to cut the utility any slack. Back in July, he says, the public utility board asked permission to raise the electricity rates for commercial and industrial users. The council agreed on one condition: leave the school district’s rates alone. A month and a half later, school board members were shocked to learn that the utility was preparing to raise their rates 20 percent — a move that would have cost the district $160,000 a year. The mayor, the superintendent, and board members promptly began howling, and a chagrined utility board agreed this week to cancel the rate increase.
McCabe now says there was never a serious attempt to raise the district’s rates. This claim is flatly denied by at least one school board member, Bob Reeves, who adds that the utility has just about used up its share of public goodwill, especially since three of the utility board’s members used to work for PG&E. “Aren’t you a little concerned about PG&E, and what they’ve done in the past?” he says. “That raises a few eyebrows to me.” If Alameda Power and Telecom is seriously considering a power plant that could produce some of the deadliest poisons known to man, it might want to consider acting more like the open, transparent, publicly owned utility it professes to be — and less like Pacific Gas and Electric.