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August 2007

Kettleman Hills landfill seeks a bioreactor

Officials’ plan to convert one landfill, build one and expand still another has vocal opponents

Officials at a Kings County hazardous waste facility want to convert one of their landfills into a bioreactor, which they say will benefit the environment.

But some opponents of the project at the Kettleman Hills facility call the bioreactor an unwanted experiment that will be conducted in the backyard of the 1,500 residents living in Kettleman City, a town about 4 miles away from the site near Interstate 5 in California.

The proposal calls for 18 acres of the 30-acre B-19 landfill to be converted into a bioreactor disposal unit, which would use liquids to speed up the breakdown of non-hazardous waste.

The B-19 landfill also consists of 4 acres of hazardous waste that officials say will be separate from the bioreactor, which is designed not to interfere with the hazardous material.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control hosted a public hearing in Kettleman City in which employees of Chemical Waste Management — the company that runs Kettleman Hills — came to support the project, while environmentalists and some local residents showed up to voice their opposition.

Opponents asked officials of the regulatory agency to consider a slap on the wrist Chemical Waste recently received from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Kettleman Hills was issued a minor violation on June 26 for discrepancies in the way the facility monitored polychlorinated biphenyl, also known as PCB waste.

PCB waste at Kettleman Hills is not stored at the same landfill where officials want to place the bioreactor.

A permit from the state agency is the final hurdle for the bioreactor project, which Chemical Waste officials hope to have operational in October.

Chuck White, director of regulatory affairs for Waste Management, said using bioreactors to break down garbage will one day be common practice at landfills across North America.

Northern California’s Yolo County operates a similar landfill bioreactor and Chemical Waste manages 10 bioreactors nationwide, White said.

“We think it’s the wave of the future,” he said.

Bob Henry, director of operations at Kettleman Hills, said a bioreactor would bring several benefits to Kings County.

Breaking down garbage at a faster rate, Henry said, would reduce the need for new landfills.

Henry said a conservative estimate shows that consolidating waste allows for 400,000 extra tons of capacity over four years for the Kings Waste and Recycling Authority.

The bioreactor would produce methane gas that could be converted into clean energy, said Henry, who is studying ways to provide energy to the proposed Quay Valley Ranch development in rural southern Kings County.

Organizers of the Quay Valley Ranch project hope to build a city with 50,000 households that will be completely powered with renewable energy.

But some fear the bioreactor could have a negative impact on Kettleman City’s population.

Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a member of People for Clean Air and Water in Kettleman City, said the technology is relatively new, and no one knows how it will affect the community 10 or 20 years from now.

Mares-Alatorre said she also worries about gases and liquids escaping from the bioreactor.

What makes the Kettleman Hills bioreactor unique is that it would be placed near hazardous waste, which Henry said has never been done “to my knowledge.”

But Henry said safety is a priority at the facility, and an intricate monitoring system will go “above and beyond what we would normally do.”

Yet, Mares-Alatorre pointed to the recent EPA violation as a reason to stop the bioreactor project.

“They’re experimenting again on Kettleman City,” she said. “If they can’t handle the waste they already have, are we going to permit them to take in more waste in this experiment?”

Henry said the discrepancies found by the EPA had to do with the over-reporting of PCBs in leachate, stormwater runoff.

PCB chemicals, which can cause cancer, were used in electrical equipment until Congress banned their use in 1976.

The violation stemmed from an EPA inspection in August 2005, and the problem already has been corrected, Henry said.

“This is old news,” he said.

Nathan Lau, an associate director with the EPA, said the violation was made public almost two years after the fact because an EPA evaluation took longer than expected.

Lau said the facility’s calibration system for monitoring PCBs resulted in over-reporting. But faulty monitoring can also result in under-reporting, he said.

“We prefer that they do better housecleaning in their labs,” Lau said.

Chemical Waste is in the process of renewing a permit to store PCBs.

Henry said the EPA violation shouldn’t hurt Chemical Waste’s chances for obtaining the permit.

Lau said it will be “another piece of information that we will consider.”

Another battle is expected later this year for Chemical Waste and its detractors.

Chemical Waste is seeking county approval to expand its current hazardous waste landfill by 11 acres and create a new 63-acre hazardous waste landfill.

Some local residents complain that living near Kettleman Hills affects their health, but a report released by the EPA earlier this year says the facility has no adverse effects on the residents of Kettleman City and nearby Avenal.

Mares-Alatorre called the EPA’s finding flawed because an in-depth health study never has been conducted on the residents of the two towns.