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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
SET STUNNERS TO VAPORIZE: A proposal by a Southern California company to zap county trash stored at the quickly filling Buena Vista landfill using newfangled technology is getting local activists heated.

Talking Trash

Santa Cruz County Public Works officials are eyeing a technological breakthrough that could simultaneously eliminate waste and generate carbon-neutral electricity, but opponents have labeled the plan environmental racism.

By Steve Hahn

The trash talk between County Public Works and local community activists is piling up lately, with each accusing the other of engaging in a willful campaign of misinformation.

At the center of the fight is a potential deal between the County and a Southern California-based company called AdaptiveARC that could bring a state-of-the-art waste-vaporizing machine to the county's Buena Vista landfill in Watsonville. The machine can reportedly turn trash, including medical waste and sewage sludge, into a harmless gas by zapping the junk at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The gas is then used to generate electricity, leaving nothing except a small amount of ash, which can be mixed into concrete. Public Works officials have been excitedly eyeing the technology--known as plasma arc gasification--as part of a larger effort to extend the life of the Watsonville-based Buena Vista landfill, which is currently projected to run out of room by 2030.

So far the county and AdaptiveARC have just been talking, but a growing group of community activists are trying to stop what they see as an environmental injustice before it gets off the ground. Luis Alejo, a planning commissioner for the city of Watsonville, has started a group called Pajaro Valley Coalition for Environmental Justice in response. Alejo is outraged that Watsonville residents, including migrant laborers that live near the dump, weren't consulted before Public Works started discussing the possibility of locating the plasma arc incinerator near their homes.

"There were no hearings whatsoever done in South County. There was no effort by the county to explain this technology or get people's questions answered," complains Alejo. "County staff is trying to shove this project down the throats of Pajaro Valley residens."

Several regional environmental groups have also come out in opposition to the technology, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and GreenAction for Environmental Justice. All are concerned that Public Works officials are getting a bit too cozy with AdaptiveARC and might be overlooking the potential for harmful emissions of dioxin, a suspected carcinogen that could be emitted as a byproduct of burning the gas for electricity.

Bradley Angel, executive director of GreenAction, accuses the county of trying to push this project through without conducting a thorough environmental review or checking in with nearby residents.

"Even though Santa Cruz County has been considering this Buena Vista site as the location for months, they apparently never bothered to inform or solicit feedback from nearby residents," accuses Angel. "This is completely improper and smacks of environmental injustice. To us it seems like the same old, same old: They think it's a great project as long as it's located near brown poor people who don't speak English."

Not true, says Public Works assistant director Brian Turpen. In fact, the only official action taken by the county so far has been to "express interest and take a look at it," he says.

The next step will be for Public Works to draw up a draft agreement with AdaptiveARC and then take it over to the Planning Department where it will undergo California Environmental Quality Act review. If the proposal can make it thatfar, it will still need to get a building permit from Planning and a permit from the Monterey Bay Unified Air Quality District.

All of these steps provide ample opportunity for public comment and thorough review, says Turpen.

"It will go through the same process as any other project," he says. "There is all this misinformation about what we're doing, and what's happening or what's not happening.

This project is not fast-tracked. We don't even have enough information to submit a project description to Planning [which is the first step in the process]. So I don't know where they are getting this information about lack of environmental review. We're not intent on avoiding anything, because I don't legally know how we could."

AdaptiveARC, for its part, claims on its website that emissions from a similar plant it runs in Mexico are well below California thresholds. Environmentalists counter that those tests don't adequately measure dioxin levels. AdaptiveARC didn't return an email seeking further comment.

However, environmental groups are pointing to another section of the company's website that lays out a three-phase expansion plan for the Buena Vista landfill as evidence that this project could be rapidly extended and even used to zap trash from other counties.

"The whole rationale for this project is that we need something to get rid of that small amount of residual waste we can't eliminate through recycling programs," says Angel, referring to the county's stated goal of recycling 75 percent of discarded materials, leaving only 25 percent as landfill. "Yet, they are going to great lengths to partner with a company that has a stated goal of importing waste into the county."

Turpen counters that any construction at the landfill, which has been rebranded as an "EcoPark," would be required to go through standard environmental review.

"The ecopark has property reserved for future conversion technology, which means we don't know what it could be," says Turpen. "However, we're pretty certain in the future there will be something developed to convert waste to something else. This proposal would convert it to gas for electricity, but there are other ones that ferment it and turn it into ethanol. Whatever is ultimately decided on for that space would have to go through the environmental process like anything else."

Whatever the real situation on the ground, environmental groups are mobilizing for a long, hard fight.

"The battle is on," says Angel.

The Board of Supervisors will be hearing a status report on the proposal on Aug. 12 at 9am, 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz.

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