Bird's-Eye View of Pacifica
We May Not Be Alone in the Universe

Opinion: Questions About Whole Energy Fuels Biodiesel Refinery Design and Approval Process

(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.

TODD BRAY

Comments

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Beg to differ, Peter, as PacificaNet experienced difficulties, the city was willing to grant lower per-pole fees. All out in open session.
Whole Energy has whatever problems/changes--it's closed session.
The city has every legal right to do it this way, and my experience has been that it will be held close to the vest for as long as possible.
Hence the PRA request.

Once an agreement is reached regarding changes to the lease, it MUST become a public agenda item before it is final. If alterations to the lease are still being negotiated, then this CAN'T be made public until a proposed agreement is reached. A PRA request about this seems pointless.

"Surely we will not be the first place in the world to have a biodiesel refinery, will we? I don't speak from experience, and in fact I have never seen one, but the fact that there are people selling biodiesel fuel strongly suggests that such refineries exist."

You are correct in the first statement, but the qualifier is the intimate connection to a poorly-operating sewage treatment plant. That is unique.
I'm sick to death of the glossing over of the risk(s) involved in this project.
I'm putting in a PRA request next week for whatever the h#ll the city altered on the lease and it will be reported here on Riptide when the results are obtained.

Scotty, Far be it from me to leap to the defense of my oft-erring father or his feet of clay, but I can't help but wonder as to what relevance your post has to the matter at hand. Surely we will not be the first place in the world to have a biodiesel refinery, will we? I don't speak from experience, and in fact I have never seen one, but the fact that there are people selling biodiesel fuel strongly suggests that such refineries exist. I submit that it is to these facilities that we look for any examples we may need. As to it's proximity to the water treatment facility, I was under the impression that the facilities would remain separate in their operations, with neither oil being dumped into the water system, nor sewage being dumped into our fuel, nor any of the above being dumped into the nearby creek. It might be my inexperience in the matter, but I hadn't thought that the proximity of two such facilities to each other would necessitate or cause any interaction between or commingling of the substances they produce or work with.

I have met and spoken with many people working towards the installation of a biodiesel refinery, and the one thing they invariably have in common is an almost fanatical desire to make for an ecologically and economically sound facility upon which no dirt can be 'dug up'. Further, it seems to me that the reason for their fanaticism is that people such as yourself have made it abundantly clear that any cause for grievance or complaint will be cited again and again for years to come as a clear reason that no such project should ever be allowed to be embarked upon again.

In addition to this, I fail to see how we could possibly be complaining about the fact that an issue that should have been addressed in a closed council meeting WAS addressed in a closed council meeting. I have only a passing knowledge of this sort of thing, but even I am well aware that, as Mr. Loeb said, "All real estate negotiations, like all other contractual, personnel, legal, and labor negotiations, are closed session items". Anyone who actually takes the time to think about this will agree, I am sure, when I say that the "good reasons" Mr. Loeb speaks of are too numerous (and quite frankly, too obvious) to warrant my listing them here.

It seems to me that the detractors have done their job, and done it well, and for this they have my profound gratitude; the treehuggers and hippies are on their best behavior. Now that this is accomplished, I suggest we all simmer down, wait for their final proposal (which WILL be a public council item), and try to make nice in the mean time.

Ms. Hall was not at the meeting WEF asked me to attend. What the WEF engineer said to me in front of his companions is unknown to her. Using terms like "grossly inaccurate" and "woefully misinformed statements" are perhaps pleasant things for her to write down but better applied to her own posting in this instance.

Mr. Loebs thoughts on negotiations are enlightening however a lease agreement has already been signed and amendment last winter and summer as itemized agenda items. So to have an additional amendment(s) be in a last minute end of the year specially scheduled closed session gives the appearance of impropriety at the very least.

Mr. Wagner's jabs at Ms. Hall and Mr. Loeb are not doing anybody any good.

As for WEF team of engineers one can only guess. The point here is simple, Show us the finished plans don't talk about the plans. The request for the finished engineered drawings to be an itemized agenda item is a reasonable and fair request. To date there has been no itemized agenda item to discuss and review plans other than simple conceptual illustrations. If WEF is so confident in their abilities and the city so sure of the plants functions what harm can come from being honest and open about it? Better WEF stand up for themselves and own the momentum than hide behind Loeb and Hall.

The city and WEF should insist on itemizing the engineered plans of the biodiesel refinery before the city finalizes them. The city doesn't need to, a hearing isn't required, but given the amount of interest in this project the city and WEF should want to fling open the shutters on this.

Sorry Dan, the city's credibility was used up long ago. WEF is a private corporation, not some sort of benevolent non-profit. We deserve complete and easily obtainable information about a project which could be sitting there for twenty years after its building.
And calling people names because you disagree with their position doesn't cut it either.

The plumbing code analogy stretches things fairly thinly...

Pretty much everyone I know has indoor plumbing nowadays, and it's a pretty well-known commodity. How many other municipalities have a used oil refinery connected to a waste water treatment plant?

"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."

While I can't say from personal knowledge that nothing nefarious was involved in this, It isn't in anyones interest to build this thing badly unless you are accusing this engineer of terrorism.

I have great respect for the various building codes and, as a licensed plumbing contractor, I am often the first line of enforcement of, and (for the public) education on the national, state, and local plumbing codes. The very best codes remain a one-size-fits-nobody arrangement and the process of building anything involves a great many decisions about what points of the, often contradictory, code take precedence over what others.

I do know that if I were to embark on any project with a crowd of yayhoos (where some of them are only there to thwart my success) hanging over my shoulder and wanting me to make explanations to them and/or accept input from them at every turn, The project would, of course, never be completed.

I am in favor of oversight, and oversight (by people who actually know something about it) is built into the laws that Whole Energy Fuels and the City of Pacifica are complying with. I am also in favor of educating the public (to the extent that is possible without requiring them to attend several years of apprenticeship. People who don't build anything have no idea what it takes to make anything happen. Please cut Whole Energy Fuels and the City of Pacifica some slack and give them a moment to breathe before you climb all over them.

"All information is being posted on the Whole Energy Web Site."

Ms. Hall, perhaps you can direct us to that information via Whole Energy's home website:

http://www.whole-energy.com/

now granted I am aware of the location of their information at:

http://www.whole-energy.com/pacificadocs.dxp

but I am curious as to why no link from the home website.

Also I think it would benefit the community if you would disclose your actual involvement, financial or otherwise, with Whole Energy or the City of Pacifica in regards to this project.

As far as I understand, the only lease modifications made were to extend certain deadlines for Whole Energy to complete their requirements under the existing lease. Doesn't seem like a closed session was really needed for this modification, if we are being given accurate information.

I think what Mister Bray is alluding to is the fact that the City Council chose a general "transfer of power" meeting (not a regularly scheduled meeting) to go into closed session and then initially put the item on the Consent Calendar for a vote without public input.

As for 9 "public" meetings, I think THAT statement is woefully misinformed. However, having listened the neighbors to the proposed off-leash dog park at Sanchez attend both the PBR meeting and the City Council meeting, I have to wonder how POOCH was able to reach out and inform the community about their project before it went for a vote before city council, yet most neighbors to the proposed biodiesel refinery were unaware it was even being approved.

miss hall, mr loeb, you guys are a piece of work.
wagner

It took multiple points of pressure to get the item pulled from the consent calendar at the most recent council meeting.
Having to work this hard to get some explanation from staff as to what requirements have not been fulfilled is not a good and open public process, no matter how many prior meetings may have occurred. That information should have been in the staff report; it wasn't.
And I repeat, why, after having a signed lease for almost a year, are changes to it being concealed in closed session?

Mr. Bray's comments are grossly inaccurate.
The inside of the plant has been designed in detail by an experienced team of engineers and submitted for permitting. It is being scrutinized thoroughly by fire safety, engineering, hazmat and all pertinent regulators. All information is being posted on the Whole Energy Web Site.

It is disheartening to hear such woefully misinformed statements and the process slighted as noninclusive of public debate by someone who neglected to participate in any of 9 public meetings that he knew full well were taking place.

Whole Energy will be publishing a full public update of the permitting process after the new year, so I will not do that here.

"There is no reason, other than to conceal, that lease modifications would have been placed in a closed session hearing."

All real estate negotiations, like all other contractual, personnel, legal, and labor negotiations, are closed session items. There is good reason for this.

When a negotiated agreement is reached, it becomes a public agenda item.

Is WEF paying rent yet?

Don't count on an open process. The lease was signed a year ago. There is no reason, other than to conceal, that lease modifications would have been placed in a closed session hearing.

WEF may be having financial problems, and unlike the public agenda item that allowed PacificaNet to receive a reduced rate because they're having financial problems, this one was hidden.

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