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09.24.08

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Phaedra

Image courtesy adaptiveARC
Burn After Heaving : The arc gasification plant proposed for Watsonville would consist of a machine one-quarter this size. Four conveyor belts move garbage into the chamber; the semi is shown hauling away ash.

Too Hot to Handle

The air quality district puts the kibosh on the controversial gasification plant planned for Santa Cruz's South County.

By Curtis Cartier


Kris Skrinak of adaptiveARC says he has a machine that can turn a mountain of rotting garbage into clean, sustainable energy. He says the machine is safe, reliable, and will power itself. He says he'll even cough up the $15 million needed to build it. This machine, he says, "will solve waste disposal problems and create energy independence" in one stinky swoop.

Skrinak's machine functions like a trash incinerator on steroids by using white-hot arcs of plasma to superheat waste to temperatures up to 5,500 degrees--hot enough to rip apart molecular bonds and reduce the trash to its most basic elements. What's left is glasslike ash called slag and a hydrogen-carbon monoxide mix of gasses called syngas. The highly combustible syngas is pumped into a generator that uses the gas as fuel and, in theory, powers the plant and even contributes energy back into the county's power grid. And the slag? That's good for making roads and cement. All this, and it will release essentially no pollutants into the air--in theory.

For the last five months, Skrinak and adaptiveARC have been pitching this machine to Santa Cruz County officials in hopes of building a permanent facility at the Buena Vista dump just outside Watsonville before sending similar plants around the world.

But a small-but-loud group of environmentalists are calling adaptiveARC's machine an "incinerator in disguise" and insist it will dump dioxin into the atmosphere.

And in the end, none of it may matter, since the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District refused to process the company's application for an all-important air permit due to "severely lacking data" from previous emissions tests. The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet Oct. 7 to discuss letting the Carlsbad-based green technology company construct its wonder machine near the Buena Vista Landfill for testing purposes and would need the blessing of the air district if they were to approve the plans.

No Horse and No Cart
AdaptiveARC's technology was developed by Mexican scientist Christian Juvan, who, according to Skrinak, set up a test plant in Monterrey, Mexico, where he "proved this technology is a real solution." It was here that adaptiveARC harvested preliminary data it hoped would convince local governments in the United States that plasma arc waste disposal could work anywhere--the same data the MBUAPCD deemed "incomplete."

Skrinak contends that "all the data we need is there." But Lance Ericksen, manager of MBUAPCD's engineering division, says the company didn't even include what units of measurement it used in its tests.

"They want to get this thing started but it's a case of wanting the cart before the horse--and in this case they don't have the cart or the horse," Ericksen says. "[Gabriel] Jebb, the person we've been working with on this, said the company is now looking at setting up possibly in Reno, Nevada."

Skrinak denies any plans to move to Reno, and Jebb, who is adaptiveARC's vice president of operations, could not be reached for comment. Skrinak did say, however, that several other cities in California, as well as Europe and Asia, had expressed interest in the technology and that Santa Cruz could "miss out" on being a launching pad for a breakthrough.

"You either are a leader or a laggard," he says "And I don't want to see Santa Cruz County with egg on their face when this technology is approved in other counties. I'm frankly at a loss as to why I'm having to defend trash reduction and reducing greenhouse gasses."

Santa Cruz County District 4 Supervisor Tony Campos says the project was originally billed as a small "pilot project" that might be able to avoid some of the strict regulations involved with constructing any kind of waste disposal plant. But when, over time, it was revealed that the company had plans to eventually build a permanent facility, they were told they'd need to jump through the same hoops as everyone else.

"If what they are telling us is true, then they should be willing to show the data to prove it," says Campos. "But there's no track record and this is coastal California. No one's going to let someone bend the rules just because they say they have a great idea. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions to keep people safe."

A Toxic Threat?
Plasma arc waste disposal is not brand new. Waste-to-energy plants exist in Japan and England and recently in Canada, but serious problems remain. In July, Ottawa's brand new $400 million Plasco waste-to-energy plant was shut down after sulphur dioxide emissions were found to exceed legal limits. And the technology has been rejected by other councils in cities like Honolulu, where city officials ditched plans to build a plant even though they conceded the city had no other options for dealing with its waste problem. Still, other plants from other companies are currently being proposed by Geoplasma in St. Lucie County, Fla., and Alter NRG just 150 miles north in Sacramento.

Supporters say plasma arc technology is so promising that companies like adaptiveARC shouldn't need more than an encouraging high-five to perform tests in Santa Cruz County. But others, like Bradley Angel of the San Francisco environmental group Greenaction, contend that a single test could jeopardize the health of nearby residents and damage the environment. Angel has led a campaign against plasma arc facilities in Santa Cruz County and elsewhere and calls adaptiveARC "highly secretive" and its technology "a toxic threat."

"The fact is, this technology is untested, and the few facilities in the world that do use it have had serious problems," says Angel. "The process has been proven to produce dioxin, which is one of the most toxic poisons in the world."

Angel also says the company has refused to release public documents and is using the residents in the Buena Vista migrant labor camp as unknowing guinea pigs.

"The bottom line is, adaptiveARC took no steps to notify the migrant worker community they plan to build their plant next to [them], and the so-called-data from their tests in Mexico is practically nonexistent," says Angel. "This process has been streamlined through the county without any of the necessary dialogue in the community. If Kris wants to test this so bad, why doesn't he build it near where he lives instead of where poor Spanish-speaking workers live?"

But while Angel contends the project has breezed through the permit process, Campos says the company's failure to receive an air permit is exactly why the project will be shot down when the supervisors vote on Oct. 7. He also said he'd like to see the company come back with enough information to satisfy the air district and that he's ready to travel to Mexico and view the existing plant where the proposed technology was born.

"We can't just go in blind," says Campos. "What if someone gets sick? We have to know this thing is safe. Everyone who wants to build in Santa Cruz County has to follow the rules. That's life."

As seemingly inevitable as the Board of Supervisors' rejection may be, Skrinak says he's committed to seeing a waste-to-energy plant built in Santa Cruz County and will endeavor, however grudgingly, to satisfy the requirements he's so far been content to avoid.

"Every day we wait to use something like this, trash is piling up in our landfills," says Skrinak. "It may take more time to get the plant built than we thought, but we've got a clear path. Unfortunately the clock is always ticking."


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