Burning Bridges

The City of Alameda feels misunderstood. Frequently lauded for its success at recycling and food waste collection, it is now fending off criticism of its plans to fire up an incinerator in the inner Bay Area. City officials won’t deny the accusation—but they’re still smarting from the barbs.

The city-owned power company—Alameda generates its own power, and has since 1887—asked Advanced Energy Systems to investigate the possibility of burning solid waste to generate additional power for the 12.8-square mile island. The waste would be burned in a gasification plant, an incinerator-like device that burns municipal solid waste (MSW) at an extreme temperature. “Residents have been misled into thinking we’re building a plant, and this is simply not true,” says Alameda Power & Telecom (AP&T) communications supervisor Matt McCabe. “We did look at gasification as a possibility but are not committed to building anything at this time.”

But Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ (GAIA) Monica Wilson says the community isn’t persuaded. “We see nothing in public records that states that AP&T is no longer interested in gasification,” says Wilson. “Observing this process has been confusing since AP&T has made no public statement of intent.”

Indeed, residents were so unmollified—and agitated—that 55 people showed up at the June 29 meeting of the Public Utilities Board, which oversees the power company, about half in opposition to the idea that the power company is thinking of thinking of building an incinerator.

Gasification involves heating and combusting organic waste such as food, paper, and plastic, which results in gases and byproducts such as liquid and solid residue. Though it has been touted as a safer alternative to traditional incineration, gasification still creates pollutants. “GAIA considers gasification a form of incineration, because both yield the same results,” explains Wilson. “Burning waste at a high temperature produces the formation of pollutants like dioxins, which causes serious public health threats.”

Says AP&T’s McCabe, explaining why the city approached Advanced Energy Systems about gasification as a source for additional power, “In planning for the future, it looked like we would need additional resources by 2006. We have since been able to acquire the resources to meet this need, but we will need new power by 2011.” Alameda will draw upon landfill gas from an existing site in Richmond for electricity in the meantime.

McCabe says the scope of the 2002 investigation did not include a formal evaluation of any site for this plant that may or may not still be under contemplation. Yet AP&T did consider the Davis Street Transfer Station, a garbage collection site in a lower-income area of neighboring San Leandro, as a possible location because of its existing garbage supply. San Leandro Mayor Shelia Young and community groups objected to the idea, and AP&T backed off. Says GreenAction executive director Bradley Angel, “The victory here is that GreenAction and community groups have successfully slowed the process and have mobilized community members who care about clean air.”

An irony about Alameda’s scheme is that while the city considers gasification a source of renewable energy, a gasification plant may actually reduce the city’s rate of recycling, as it encourages people to throw away recyclables and food waste rather than recycling or composting. According to Wilson, “Alameda has exceptional recycling rates, and gasification could take the focus off this and place it on burning garbage rather than encouraging a zero waste track.” Gasification does not actually produce renewable energy, since MSW can be traced back to some non- renewable sources.

McCabe says the transcript of public commentary at the September 20 meeting of the Public Utilities Board, scheduled to discuss options for power generation and to offer alternatives to gasification, will be posted on AP&T’s website. Meanwhile, AP&T would not issue a public statement regarding its policy on a gasification plant somewhere down the line. Says McCabe, “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

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