Tom Frantz

Clearing the Air – May 2013: Protecting Public Health by Promoting Polluting Projects

By Tom Frantz

You have to see it to believe it. Our air district does not keep our health in its best interests. Instead, it claims new pollution is good for us.

There is a Kern County power plant project currently going through the permitting process at the California Energy Commission. It will be a huge source of new air pollution.

This power plant, called Hydrogen Energy California (HECA), proposes to force impure hydrogen gas out of coal from New Mexico and fire it as fuel in a boiler. It will capture some of the carbon dioxide and use it in the nearby Elk Hills to extract some unrecoverable oil. HECA is called by the ignorant a “clean coal” project.

Air quality advocates are dismayed that the project involves hundreds of local daily trucks and twice weekly trains into the Central Valley to deliver the coal. They cry out that this project is twice as dirty as a modern natural gas power plant in terms of its criteria air pollutants. It doesn’t make sense in a place where we already have the highest concentrations of these pollutants in the nation.

Local farmers are up in arms because the project sits in the middle of prime farmland and toxic emissions from the plant could well contaminate their land with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. The plant will also require enough agricultural quality water to irrigate 2,500 acres of crops annually.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors has some serious concerns about the project. Supervisor David Couch invited the air district head, Seyed Sadredin, to speak about air quality concerns at a hearing on HECA at the Feb. 26 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Sadredin started off by saying, “This project, if built, will actually result in a net benefit to the air quality of the San Joaquin Valley and in the region.”

He meant that HECA had purchased emission-reduction credits and was volunteering to pay the air district several million dollars for special projects. What he did not say was that those credits were many years old, of questionable value and don’t cover near all the emissions. He also didn’t explain how money spent up and down the Central Valley for electric lawn mowers will help residents in southern Kern County breathe any easier.

Sadredin then tried to explain why a big new polluter like HECA gets to use these old emission reduction credits. He said, “Why do we do that? Well, to put a ban on growth would actually be bad for public health.”

He seemed to mean that a new massive source of air pollution is not as bad for public health as losing the project’s economic stimulus along with the fees that would have to be paid to the air district.

Sadredin then showed his misunderstanding about HECA by saying, “I want to talk to you about the public health benefit that comes from CO2 sequestration…In this area with heavy oil production, you have to inject steam into the ground to get the oil out…You have to burn fuel to generate the steam and…using CO2 emissions, that will minimize and reduce the need for boilers and steam generators…That is an environmental benefit.”

Unfortunately, HECA admits the opposite is true. The CO2 injection process will itself be a large source of pollution, and it is absolutely not an alternative to steam injection in this type of oil field.

Sadredin responded to comments about coal dust and contamination from the trains with this statement, “There will be no emissions here but only in New Mexico (where the coal originates)…not in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Actually, coal trains have been coming into Kern County for the past 20 years to fuel three power plants along Highway 65. The tracks along the entire route are littered with chunks of coal and coal dust. If the air district members don’t know this, then they are incompetent.

After more nonsense about the benefits of HECA, Sadredin concluded with the following: “I am not here to advocate for the project. That is not our job. I just wanted you to have the facts.”

At this point, the unbelieving audience burst into loud spontaneous laughter and had to be reprimanded by the Board chair.

And that, folks, is how our local air district protects our health.

*****

Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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[…] frustration came to a head when a dirty new coal-burning power plant (HECA) was proposed for Kern County about 10 years ago. This project purchased, with federal tax dollars, […]

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