By Julia Scott, Bay Area News Group reporter
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
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.
[forwarded by Mark Stechbart]
BY TODD MCCUNE BRAY
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.
BY TODD BRAY
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.
Michelle Havens of U.S. Fish & Wildlife to Martin Wahl of Whole Energy Fuels:
Hi Martin: Specifically, what is your project? I have been assigned to a couple of projects in that area, but I'm not sure if I have been assigned to yours. Please give me some information on what the project involves and I can help you or direct you to whomever the project has been assigned to. Thanks!
Fish and Wildlife Biologist
Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
2800 Cottage Way Room W-2605
Sacramento, CA 95825
(916) 414-6496 Michelle_Havens@fws.gov
Martin to Michelle:
Hi Michelle: Whole Energy was granted a CDP (E-07-011) to construct a used cooking oil recycling plant within the existing developed operational and fenced enclosure of the City of Pacifica's Calera Creek Water Recycling Plant. We also have a building permit from the City of Pacifica to construct the recycling plant on an existing slab in a paved area. The project will involve no grading or weed removal. I have attached the project description from the Coastal Development Permit application which includes recommendations made by Lucy Triffleman of USFWS and Suzanne Deleon of CA F&G during their April 2008 site visit to ensure we would not disturb Federal or State Wetlands. The Coastal Commission has asked us to check with your agency and others to see if further approvals are necessary. Please let me know if you have any concerns or questions. Thank you.
We recently posted a story about an Oakland biofuel company using jatropha plants as feedstock. The company's CEO read our post and submitted a comment today on Riptide. We asked him if he would talk with people here in Pacifica about our proposed biodiesel plant, and he was kind enough to agree. His name and email address appear below, along with a link to his Web site.
Info: SIRONA FUELS
Email CEO Paul Lacourciere: email@example.com
Click this link Download Corps.Calera.TA.020209 to see and download a letter from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) about quarry habitat and Pacifica's/Whole Energy Fuels' biodiesel plant and the city's apparent noncompliance with conservation measures at Calera Creek wastewater treatment plant. USFWS meets next week at the plant to discuss previous agreements with the city and the biodiesel plant.
Whole Energy had been looking for a used building (as of six months ago) to put up as the shell of the Calera Creek biodiesel plant. We are waiting for an update on the status of that search. Riptide salutes the idea of reuse/recycling and hopes that this is the beginning of something positive on this long-awaited, contentious project. Check out item number 7: GIMME SHELTER
The Whole Earth All-Enveloping Cold-Press Expelling Regurgitorium, or WEA-EC-PER, is pleased to announce that it's on schedule, but that there is no schedule. (tapocka, tapocka, tapocka) If it weren't for all you non-performing assets out there, well (tapocka, tapocka), there'd be no need, no need at all for the schedule to be announced, but the schedule is on time and there isn't one. (tapocka, tapocka) As to the grant, the grant, yes we need that, over hill, over dale as we hit...the GRANT IS ON SCHEDULE, WE NEED IT! (tapocka, tapocka, tapocka)
And so, contrary to the rumors swirling, of, yes, you rumor-mongering, WATCH OUT FOR THAT TANKER TRUCK, YOU... (tapocka, tapocka) Yes, we are completely on schedule, just don't ask us what it is, little people. (tapocka, tapocka, tapocka)
DBEYROTI for WEA-EC-PER
(We asked Whole Energy Fuels representatives to comment on the following opinion piece, but they say they will issue a public update after the first of the new year and prefer not to comment at this time. The following is the writer's own opinion and not that of Riptide.)
The structure to house the biodiesel refinery plant has been permitted by the City of Pacifica, but the "machinery" (meaning the various tanks, plumbing, and valves that will be the plant) has yet to be fully designed beyond the basic concept illustrations currently provided. The engineer designing the mechanics of the refinery for Whole Energy Fuels (WEF) told me at a private meeting with the WEF team that he was surprised that he was able to conceptually fit a 3-million-gallon-a-year refinery into only 4,000 square feet of building. The recent permit for the plant's structure did not include any engineered drawing for how this elaborate assemblage of vertical storage tanks, automated computer-controlled switching valves, and grease boilers will be housed within the 4,000-square-foot, metal-sided steel beam structure, but the engineer said he conceptually did it by "pushing the envelope" of mandatory safety regulations of 2-foot clearances for spacing between tanks, pipes, boilers. and valves.
Another interesting development in this saga is the closed-session item on lease terms. We know the lease is for five years, with an additional five-year option at $65,000 a year or its equivalent in "energy." But because lease terms were placed in closed session, we won't know what the terms are because closed session forbids City Council members from openly talking about them. I could be wrong, but because it's a closed-session item, I can't ask questions and get answers.
Finally, the project's initiators' assertions of process being done right are noble, but the history of this project's lack of process makes their otherwise reassuring promises rather doubtful. But that's all water under the bridge. I hope the city and WEF will insist on bringing final engineering drawings for the plant to a public hearing or an agendized consideration item before it is finally approved by the city.