Critics complain new coal plant will increase Kern's air pollution

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Valley Air District officials are giving a proposed power plant a green light, but critics complain the project will add to Kern County's already dirty air.

Supporters say the Hydrogen Energy California plant proposed near Buttonwillow is all about clean energy, but critics dispute that.

"We're a neighbor to this proposed project, and we're at risk," Buttonwillow area farmer Chris Romanini told Eyewitness News. She's worried about the coal the plant will use as fuel. Her family grows pistachios, almonds, grapes and cherries near the proposed facility.

Romanini is outraged that the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District just came out with preliminary approval.

The document dated Feb. 7 is a notice of Preliminary Determination of Compliance. Air District spokeswoman Jaime Holt says that means the district has determined the proposal meets all state air rules and regulations.

But, Romanini worries about what will come out of the plant and the trucks and train cars delivering coal to it. She worries about the safety of her crops near the facility.

Supporters say the plant is safe and green.

"As compared to other kinds of power plants, this particular facility will capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide that would normally go into the air," spokesman Larry Pickett told Eyewitness News on Thursday. The plant is being developed by SCS Energy.

The company says HECA will operate on a fuel blend of "75 percent western subbituminous coal and 25 percent California petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refining." They say that will be converted into a "syngas," which will then produce electricity and fertilizer.

HECA says 90 percent of the carbon dioxide will be piped to nearby Elk Hills Oil Field to help get more oil out of the ground, and then it'll be captured underground. "Preventing its release into the atmosphere where it would contribute to global climate change," the company says.

If 90 percent is captured, Romanini and some environmentalist groups worry about what's left. "We still have to deal with the 10 percent getting loose in our air," she said. "Doesn't that bother anybody else? It bothers me."

Romanini notes Kern County has some of nation's worst air pollution. And, she spotted a notice issued by the air district that reads, "the proposed installation (of the project) will result in significant emission increases" of several substances.

The environmental groups dispute the company's plan to "offset" those emissions. They believe the offset credits come from the reduced emissions from plant and facility closures that happened years ago. Romanini argues that doesn't help clean up today's pollution.

Coal for the plant would reportedly be shipped by train and truck from New Mexico, according to the environmentalists. They argue that will increase pollution from the transportation, and Romanini worries about coal dust getting onto crops. She's also afraid the company wants to build a rail spur through the area's farmland.

But, the critics are also concerned about what will come out of the plant's processes. Especially with its use of coal.

"It's not going to be burned," Pickett stresses about the use of coal. "It's a gasification process that will create the hydrocarbons," he said. "Through the gasification process, the hydrogen is being created to produce electricity -- and the carbon dioxide that would be produced, is captured."

The company says about 3 million tons of carbon dioxide a year will be sealed underground. They also say the facility will produce enough electricity for 160,000 homes, and more than one million tons a year of low-carbon fertilizer products for agricultural use.

The project has been the focus of public hearings, and Romanini says farm workers asked if they would be exposed to chemicals or toxic substances. The response in an Air District report is: "impacts to local workers, the nearest sensitive receptor, or the town of Tupman associated with accidental release of hazardous materials would be less than significant."

Romanini is less than impressed. She worries about the risk of accumulated materials coming from the plant. She also thinks the project is unproven. "It's a test, it's a demonstration," Romanini complains. "It has never been proven that it can be done."

But, in an Air District report, it notes the company has done extensive air quality and public health modeling. "The results of this modeling demonstrate the HECA Project emissions will be below levels at which adverse effect to soils and vegetation, including crops, occur," it reads.

SCS Energy says the project is expected to start in 2017. "HECA has the support of the U.S. Department of energy as a safe and cost-effective way to produce clean energy," the company website says.

Final approval of the project is up to the California Energy Commission, but there will be more consideration by the Valley Air District. Another public hearing on the air emission aspects is now set to be held in Bakersfield on April 2.

Local environmentalists told Eyewitness News they want another chance to speak up to the Air District. Romanini also has more to say about the proposed facility. "It's just not a good fit," she says. "To try in our community, our valley, and in the agricultural community."