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Neighbors worried over plant demolition

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In the long history of the Palos Verdes Landfill there have been many controversies.

As a school board member in the 1990s, Joan Davidson pressed the district to review what she and others with the local Sierra Club believed could be errant dust of toxic materials wafting into nearby RanchoVistaElementary School.

A determination at the time was made that the landfill site, now the area covering ErnieHowlettPark, the SouthCoastBotanic Garden and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District’s gas-to-energy facility, was safe. In 2009, a five-year review also determined the same.

“The overall finding was that the site is safe and well maintained,” said Kristen Ruffell, an LACSD division engineer. “There have been a number of questions over the years. There are some people in the community who may never be able to be satisfied with studies and findings.”

Before the Peninsula was home to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, it was home to one of the most toxic waste dumps in the region. Beginning in 1929, a carbon mine was located at the site, and then from 1957 to 1980, the Palos Verdes Landfill accepted class 1 hazardous materials from companies such as Dow Chemical, Union Carbide and Montrose.

When the 300-acre site reached capacity, the landfill was capped with material from the local area and a gas-to-energy plant was built which, until October 2011, captured the escaping methane gas and converted it to electricity.

Now the Sanitation District wants to demolish the plant because there isn’t enough gas left to justify its operation. What’s left is being burned in flares, some of which may be exceeding allowable air quality standards. This has stirred up another round of controversy, initiated by a group of residents mostly centered around the local Sierra Club chapter and led by Davidson.

Of primary concern is the possibility of disturbing dirt containing toxic substances, including silica sand and diatomaceous earth, which airborne are believed to cause lung cancer.

“If you think about the history of this, with layers of toxic liquids and solid waste, you don’t want to cut into that cake and expose it and lay it on the ground to blow all over kingdom come,” Davidson said.

But that’s not going to be the case, Ruffell said.

“Certain people have looked at our construction plans and seen that the concrete pads are being removed and leveled and the thought they’ve had is that we are then exposing the soil underneath the plant,” Ruffell said.

The pads actually sit on the foundation, she said.

“We are not taking out the foundations to the power plant,” Ruffell said. “They are remaining, so the soil underneath the power plant is not disturbed.”

Even if the dirt were disturbed it does not contain toxic substances, Ruffell noted, citing determinations made in the earlier reviews of the landfill. Still, she said work crews will be instructed to put in dust control measures to treat all materials as if they were in fact harmful.

Crews also plan to dig a trench for a new storm drain and install some electrical equipment that might disturb some dirt, but it too will be clean, Ruffell said.

Based on her own reading of the construction plans, Davidson believes that’s just not true.

“They understood what I was talking about and they said something that wasn’t true,” Davidson said.

Earlier this month, Ruffell and other Sanitation District officials answered concerns raised by the Rolling Hills Estates City Council. One of the questions was whether the plant should undergo additional environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). District officials said no such review is necessary, based on the 2007 review. But Davidson and others say enough has changed since then to warrant another look.

Also at issue is the integrity of Mehta Construction, the contractor that was awarded the project. From 2002 to 2005 the business had its license revoked and in 2008 and 2011 it faced charges by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“They are giving a general contractor with a seedy past a huge responsibility,” Davidson said. “They will be shutting down and removing gas lines when they rip out old equipment. I think we need higher-level professionals to be overseeing this.”

Ruffell said the district simply doesn’t have the authority to disqualify the contractor based on its history and that an inspector will be on site for the entire project. The contract was awarded on a lowest bid basis.

“There are lots of contractors we wish we had the authority not to use,” Ruffell said. “But we have a staff of construction inspectors that will assure they comply with the specs.” ER

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