HECA's Consumption: coal, water and money

Supporters say a proposed power plant west of Bakersfield will bring much needed jobs and tax money to Kern County. But opponents say it will bring hundreds of trucks and take millions of gallons of water.
To make electricity, fertilizer and carbon dioxide, the $4 billion HECA plant in western Kern County plans to consume coal and water – a lot of coal, and a lot of water.

Proponents say the plant will be a boon to a rural area in severe need of an economic boost. It will bring 2,000 temporary construction jobs and 200 high-paying permanent jobs to the area, and become the fourth biggest property tax payer in Kern County.

Developers have plans to handle each challenge, but opponents worry an already limited supply of water will be stretched, and a constant stream of coal trucks will create danger and other issues.

About 150 trucks a day would use a 27-mile route from a rail depot near Wasco to the HECA plant near Tupman. That route would travel through Shafter and past two schools.

"The trucks will be fully enclosed, of course," said Tiffany Rau, spokesperson for Hydrogen Energy California

"The main discussion probably started a year, year and a half ago," said Ernie Unruh, superintendent for the Rio Bravo Greeley School District, which operates both schools along the path.

"Obviously the school start times are a big concern of ours," said Unruh.

Another concern is the number of truck trips. By KGET’s calculation, a 27-ton HECA truck will pass in each direction every 10 minutes.

"This is going to use a dedicated fleet of 13 trucks and they'll be running on a 24 hour, seven days a week period," said Rau.

Those are coal trucks. An additional 224 daily truck trips will take other materials, like fertilizer and waste, in different directions in and out of the plant.

Which is why the California Energy Commission has serious concerns HECA's trucks could "substantially increase traffic ... on farming thoroughfares" and "potentially degrade the roads." But HECA has promised to fund projects it says will reduce impacts to insignificant levels.

Then there's the use of water, 6.6 million gallons a day or 7,500 acre feet a year which is enough to fill more than 3,700 hundred Olympic-size swimming pools every year. HECA said it needs the water to cool its power towers.

"It's valuable water for agriculture," said Tom Frantz, almond farmer and area environmental activist.

But the district the water will come from, Buena Vista, says the water isn't usable on farms.

"We think that we are using water that would not be used productively used in Buena Vista," said Maurice Etchechury, engineer manager for the Buena Vista Water Storage District.

That's because the water it plans to pump would come from an area where the district says the groundwater is brackish or salty.

The district says it's been trying for years to sell the brackish water because it believes moving salty water out would allow fresh water to seep in.

"To us we actually think we are adding to the supply of water," said Maurice Etchechury.

"Whether we have HECA or we do not have HECA that is the right thing to do for Buena Vista farmers," said Olu Ogunjobi, geoscientist for the Buena Vista Water Storage District.

But some hydrologists, including those with California Energy Commission, believe if salty water is pulled out even saltier water will move in, the opposite of what the district wants.

"Well we really don't appreciate that," said Etchechury. "We are just looking at data and interpreting it in two different ways.”

The California Energy Commission also said the district plan could "overdraft" our groundwater basin and cause "subsidence" or ground sinking.

On top of that many farmers say even if the water is brackish it can be used on crops outside the district if it's blended with cleaner water.

"This is very usable water,” said Frantz. "It's been proven in scientific studies you can you more brackish water for crops like pomegranates, pistachios, cotton."

Buena Vista said it would have sold water to farmers but no one ever asked. HECA on the other hand put up the cash, spending $20 million to $30 million to drill wells and another $3 million a year for water. The district says it will use the water for improvement projects.

"I call that good business," said Etchechury.

But opposing farmers call it a sellout.

"At this point the district's judgment is somewhat clouded by the prospect of $3-million-plus, a year, in income," said Beau Antongiovanni, a Buttonwillow area farmer.

So where does HECA get all of this money to buy water, pollution credits and construction. According to the Department of Energy it's federal funding. HECA already spent $150 million of its $408 million allotment and the plant hasn't even been approved.

"That's not right," said Brad Bittleston, an area rancher.

The concerning part for taxpayer is the California Energy Commission said in a status update Occidental of Elk Hills, the company agreeing to use the carbon dioxide, is discussing its continued participation with the project. And without a place to put its carbon dioxide this piece of land may never see HECA built.
 
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