PACIFICA—A plant slated to produce more than 3 million gallons per year of local refined biodiesel for Bay Area residents looks like it will never get built, and the city may get stuck with a bill for illegal construction by the company selected to build the plant.
Biodiesel project in Pacifica hit a funding snag By Jane Northrop Pacifica Tribune Posted: 06/04/2009 05:55:44 AM PDT The downturn in the economy is making it difficult for Whole Energy Fuels to move as quickly as expected on the new proposed biodiesel facility at the Calera Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Pacifica City Manager Stephen Rhodes said the proposed project, which would convert used vegetable oil to fuel, is on hold pending funding issues. "Whole Energy has had problems lning up investors in the project due to the decrease in gas prices and the downturn in the economy," he said. Nevertheless, the grant Whole Energy received from the Clean Air Resource Board remains available, if Whole Energy can meet certain milestones, Rhodes said. The ptoject is also on hold until Whole Energy lines up the proper permits from the city of Pacifica's building department to proceed. Last month, Whole Energy workers began digging a trench on the site, but was told by Jason Lo, city of Pacifica's code enforcement officer, to stop. "I received a complaint. I responded and researched if there had a permit, but they did not. They were directed to stop until the requisite permit from the building department was obtained," Lo said. Cal-OSHA also investigated, as a permit is required from Cal-OSHA, as well. Numerous phone calls and emails from the Tribune to Whole Energy over the last few weeks were left unanswered. According to the city of Pacifica's building inspector, Whole Energy has not taken any steps toward acquiring city permits to build.
The outcome of Whole Energy Fuels' Coastal Act violation of illegally starting construction without a completed permit amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist. A letter to Whole Energy Fuels from Coastal Commission staff asserts, “It was reported to us that Whole Energy Fuels began construction on trenches for utility lines at the subject site, prior to satisfying all the requirements of the Permit. This constitutes a violation of the Permit, and, thus, of the Coastal Act.” But no punitive action has been taken or recommended by commission staff.
The commission staff's letter dated April 28, 2009, addressed to Martin Wahl of Whole Energy Fuels, says the commission's Enforcement Unit has instructed Whole Energy Fuels on the Coastal Act Violation No. V-7-09-001 as follows: “To resolve the alleged Coastal Act violation Whole Energy should refrain from any additional development of the site, and should continue to work with Commission permitting staff to satisfy all special conditions of the permit.” Of concern is the wording that WEF “should” refrain from any further site development, not “shall” refrain.
Commission staff further instructs Whole Energy Fuels: “Once Commission staff has indicated to you that all special conditions have been met, construction may begin on the site, and the existing Coastal Act violation will be considered to be resolved.”
While no officer or employee of Whole Energy Fuels has been named by the City of Pacifica or commission staff as the person responsible for the violation, most indicators point to a former city employee currently working for Whole Energy Fuels as the person responsible for the Coastal Act violation. But there is no verifiable source to corroborate this theory at this time.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has recently stated concerning the biodiesel refinery’s wildlife compliance: “The Service is still working with Whole Energy and a few species experts to resolve any outstanding issues with respect to Federal Endangered Species Act compliance. We have not issued a permit or letter of any kind to Whole Energy to date.”
Whole Energy Fuels and its officers and employees have seemingly dodged a Coastal Act violation bullet, but as readers and contributors to Riptide continue to learn more, it is quite evident Whole Energy Fuels is being given great leeway by city, state, and federal staff. The only thing between Whole Energy Fuels and a completed project appears to be Whole Energy Fuels itself.
The California Environmental Protection Agency Office of Legal Affairs has informed me that Whole Energy Fuels (WEF) has received the sum of $111,600 to fund the recently shut-down trenching operation on the grounds of the Calera Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant. But staff members of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) who are managing the funds that WEF has received clarified that announcement. WEF has received 20 percent of the CARB grant it was awarded specifically for reaching its first “milestone,” one of four such milestones. Milestone 1 receives 20 percent of the grant money, milestone 2 gets 40 percent, milestone 3 earns 30 percent, and milestone 4 the wins the final 10 percent of the publicly funded grant.
Milestone 1 required that WEF complete its plans, permits, land leases, and various other agency approvals, which to CARB staff’s satisfaction WEF has done. The recent stop-work order has no effect on the money WEF has received so far and it is not necessary for WEF to reimburse the taxpayers. Milestone 2 requires that WEF have a completed plant that is functional but not operational, meaning that the plant can produce fuel but still requires fine-tuning. Milestone 3 requires a fully operational plant producing the proper grade of fuel continually. Milestone 4 requires all final reports and sign-off notices from various agencies that provide permits and guidance.
A large part of WEF reaching milestone 1 was the environmental work the City of Pacifica did for WEF applications. To date, WEF has not repaid the City of Pacifica for that work, which totals $75,000, according to City Manager Steve Rhodes. Of the $111,600 WEF has received so far, it has used none of that sum to date to pay back the City of Pacifica. As of this writing, WEF has not replied to a question about whether WEF has a timetable or milestone of its own to repay Pacifica the $75,000 it owes.
The Enforcement Unit of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) has confirmed that WEF started the trenching without having satisfied the requirements of its Coastal Development Permit (CDP). Correspondence between WEF and the CCC staff explaining their actions has taken place, but copies are not yet being made available. The CCC is not pulling WEF's CDP but is working closely with WEF as it tries to complete the permit process.
WEF is still moving forward with the biodiesel refinery; neither the CCC nor the City of Pacifica are refusing WEF its permits or the opportunity to build the biodiesel facility regardless of WEF's admitted mistakes. But staff members overseeing the CARB grant say that funds for the remainder of the milestones will run out on June 30, 2009 and then will not be available. This means that WEF may not receive any further funds from the citizens of California, unless, of course, WEF can get through the permit process, build a functional plant, and show that it can produce fuel before June 30, 2009.
Before you all go off writing and calling with your comments on the biodiesel project, be sure that you check your facts, perhaps with the city manager, to make sure you are making correct statements. Do not rely on Internet chatter for your information.
I brought this idea to the city believing that it had merit and that if it were to succeed, it would be a micro-generator of both fuel and electrical power for the city, and a retail generator of local income. That projected potential benefit to air quality, energy bills, and local sales was my sole objective, with the added benefit of bringing a good number of green-minded souls to spend money on more than just fuel when they came to Pacifica. I had been accused of always saying "no" to projects (untrue in itself) and I wanted to come up with an idea that was green AND made money because I love my city and wanted to find one, small creative solution.
This project has gotten an enormous amount of detailed oversight and the engineered plans have been gone over in minute detail by the fire safety folks, and the thing is spill-contained beyond belief. I would never have considered this a reasonable idea if it were not for the fact that the site had been permitted for the chemicals in question and designed to avoid but still contain possible spills.
I understand that some honestly did not support the idea, feeling that risk outweighed benefit. Fair enough. Do what you gotta do. Based on everything I could find to assess the proposal, I was of the opinion, one shared by fire safety personnel, that the risks could be handled in a way that made them minimal, the benefits far outweighing the problems. Again, some disagreed, but some concerns were unsupportable hysteria, misrepresented and blown way out of proportion
There are those who want to see it fail because Jim Vreeland and I had anything to do with it. Old political divides die hard, sadly, and I think it would not matter to these folks WHAT my name was attached to or this council approved; they would still disembowel it. That is unfair but predictable. At a certain point I decided that the city and Whole Energy Fuels had a lease and a relationship and that they were responsible for moving forward, and I took a step back because I am not an engineer or a safety specialist or a lawyer, and these are the people whose hands it is in now. There is a time you let go of a project that you initiate because it either sinks or swims on its own merit and its own viability. I still think that it has merit, but from the beginning I knew that it would be (and wanted it to be) gone over in detail for safety and viability.
I would be sad to see it not happen after getting it to this point, and I wish that those denigrating it would actually look at and understand how it works and the calculations as to how much carbon it keeps out of the atmosphere. With Obama looking for shovel-ready green infrastructure projects, it would be ironic for this one to not to proceed. As for the plant design, I trust the fire safety and hazmat people who reviewed designs and will be doing at least 10 different inspections. I've seen no premeditated, nefarious schemes being hatched, but if anything was done out of order, it will be revealed and corrected or it will not go forward. Maybe the whole thing will "go away" as some would prefer. That would be a shame and a waste.
What seems to never go away is the nastiness and the inhumane way that we talk to our opponents. Some assume so much about my motivations and character that is based on a cartoon version of reality and just incorrect. This is not about personalities. It's on city land, and those whose hands now steer the project—that includes the city manager and city attorney as well as the council and a host of inspectors and regulators—will make it work or they will not. I strongly support all oversight.
There is nothing I can say that will ever convince certain people that I am not some witch trying to put a spell on the council so that I can have my own personal gas station. Seeing that in print makes me realize just how insane it is! There is only one body controlling the city and that is the voting public. They voted for a council that understood the town's overarching values, and to the best of their abilities they are trying to introduce energy-generating projects with an eye on the future.
We await official comment from Whole Energy Fuels officials on the status of construction at the proposed Calera Creek biodiesel plant site (see above). Meanwhile, read Todd Bray's and others' updates and opinions on the controversial project (click Comments below).