The Byproducts of HECA

Published 04/23 2014 04:39PM

Updated 04/23 2014 04:47PM

The developer says the $4 billion HECA power plant proposed for the west side of Kern County would be a clean source of energy and hundreds of jobs.

Opponents say it would also be a source of a lot of byproducts, some of them potentially explosive, lethal and massive.

If approved HECA will gasify coal, but not completely burn it. That will leave a waste byproduct.
"It's described to me as a slag, as little chunk and flakes," said Doug Landon, director for the Kern County Waste Management Department.

The material is expected to be non-hazardous and safe for landfills. But there may be enough of it to fill our limited dump sites.

"It's a lot," said Landon.

HECA says it could generate up to 940 tons per day. According to the county that's as much solid waste as of all unincorporated areas in Kern produce in 24 hours.

"This is far beyond anything I've ever been familiar with," said Landon.

This amount would put Kern County out of compliance with state law, which requires the county recycle 50 percent of its waste.

"Ultimately, this state can fine the county as much as $10,000 a day," said Landon.

But HECA said that won't happen because this material can be sold and recycled. Although it doesn't have a buyer yet, HECA said it has identified at least 500 potential customers within 300 miles.

"I know they're putting a lot of effort into it," said Landon.

Then there's the storage of two ammonia products, explosive and potentially lethal.

One is liquid anhydrous ammonia used to make fertilizer at the plant. It’s used by farmers on crops but it's dangerous if inhaled, something Mike Antogiovanni experienced first hand 39 years ago.

"It just cooked everything inside," he said. "Then about 2 to 3 minutes, I was spitting up blood."

Rushed to a hospital, doctors didn't know if Antongiovanni would survive.

"The next morning my wife gave birth to our third son," said Antongiovanni.

Today he still feels effects. He can't run and he can't smell. "It was good for changing baby's diapers," said Antongiovanni.

Antongiovanni's accident involved a 250 gallon tank of anhydrous ammonia. HECA plans to have two, 2-million-gallon tanks.

"I am so concerned. What is the danger to my family?" said Chris Romanini, a nearby landowner.

According to the California Energy Commission the most "likely leak" won't reach beyond the plant's fence line. But the EPA refuses to say what would happen if there were a total rupture. That information, the EPA says, is under "confidential cover".

"Confidential cover?" said Romanini. "What are they hiding?"

Even the EPA urges HECA to disclose the worst case scenario because by the agency's estimates fumes could reach as far as 25 miles into the heart of Bakersfield, an estimate HECA disputes.

HECA has taken the necessary precautions, according to the company’s Ed Western. "What we have done is to build the tanks and we have built an outer shell around the tank," said Western.

Then there's ammonium nitrate, a highly flammable fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the cause of the deadly explosion near Waco, Texas last summer, a fact that concerns the unofficial mayor of Tupman.

"The community of Tupman sits in the middle of three bombs, HECA, the Inergy propane plant that could blow up, and the oil field," said Don VanLue, the self-proclaimed mayor of Tupman.

The California Energy Commission admits there is a risk for explosions but said it's not like the plant in Texas for two reasons: The facility will store nearly six times less ammonium nitrate, and this ammonium nitrate will be a wet, less-explosive version of the substance.

Then there's the carbon dioxide.

"What they want to do is put a pipeline there that is right in back of Tupman," said VanLue.

That pipeline would carry carbon dioxide, 2.6 million tons a year, to Elk Hills to be pumped into existing oil wells for enhanced recovery.

"They even have admitted that this can produce earthquakes," said Romanini.

That may be true according a University of Austin Texas study that claims carbon dioxide injection incited 93 earthquakes in the Cogdell Oil field in one year. All but one were below a magnitude 4. But the question remains, could that happen in Kern County?

"The jury is still out I think on CO2 injection and increase seismicity," said Janice Gillespie, Chair for the Department of Geology at CSUB.

But Professor Gillespie said if there's a place to store carbon dioxide in California, HECA has the right idea.

"It turns out that here in the valley we've got some of the biggest oil field storage reservoirs in California and the biggest one by far is Elk Hills," said Professor Gillespie.

Gillespie estimates Elk Hills has room for 250 million tons of gas. HECA only plans to pump in 75 million tons over its 25 year lifetime.

"It's got five times as much space as any other reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley," said Professor Gillespie.

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