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Wednesday, Nov 20 2013 09:08 PM

Public hearing bares fissures in HECA plant

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    By John Cox/ The Californian

    Don Van Lue, a retired crop dusting company employee and former auto dealership manager living in western Kern County, spoke against plans for a chemical production and power plant in Tupman. He was among about 50 people who rallied against the project's expected impacts on air pollution. The demonstration was followed by a public hearing hosted by a committee of the California Energy Commission that is reviewing the $4 billion project.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

If it wins state approval, the Hydrogen Energy California clean coal project proposed near Tupman would create jobs, boost tax revenue and provide a test of carbon-burying technology that would help local oil production.

But it would also pollute the air, store dangerous chemicals and generate more waste than Kern County knows what to do with.

Such were the comments that emerged at a public hearing Wednesday night in Buttonwillow, as more than 100 people spoke in support or opposition, or just came to hear Massachusetts-based SCS Energy LLC's plans for a $4 billion chemical production and power plant.

The hearing was conducted by a committee that included two members of the five-person California Energy Commission, which has been reviewing the proposal for several years. A revised staff assessment of the project is expected later this year or early next year, leading to more public comment and, ultimately, a final vote by the commission sometime in 2014.

HECA, as the project is known, would turn coal and petroleum coke into fertilizer and, during times of peak demand, electricity for sale to the state's power grid. Some 90 percent of the carbon dioxide generated there would be buried in nearby oil fields which would help oil production, since it makes petroleum less viscous.

The federal government has pledged $408 million in subsidies to the project, largely because it represents a novel and relatively clean use of the nation's coal.

The economic benefits would be substantial: more than 2,400 construction jobs, some 200 permanent jobs and an estimated $52 million a year in annual labor income from direct, indirect and induced employment.

But as the project moves through the approval process, environmentalists are trying to raise concerns about the project's impacts on public health and safety.

They worry that its emissions would worsen the region's already poor air quality. Opponents also question the wisdom of storing anhydrous ammonia at the site. If that chemical were accidentally released, it would present a great safety threat to nearby residents.

Nearby residents and environmentalists from across the county took the podium Wednesday to urge the commission to reject the plan.

Brad Bone, a fourth-generation farmer who lives south of Buttonwillow, said he worries what impact the project's emissions would have on the health of his 18-month-old daughter. Bone, 30, also questioned claims that HECA's plan to use only local brackish water would improve the overall quality of the area's groundwater.

"Things just never work out that way, it seems like," he said.

Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corp., was among a number of people who spoke in support of the project because of its economic benefits.

He said KEDC's mission is to support enterprises that attract capital investment to the county, create jobs and increase tax revenue -- and the HECA project "hits it out of the ballpark in all three metrics."

Elected county and appointed officials also spoke to the committee Wednesday to express concerns about the project.

Supervisor David Couch and Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said there have not been enough measures incorporated into the plan that would lessen the project's potential negative impacts. Among these would be contingencies for dealing with a hazardous emergency at the proposed plant.

Additionally, Nancy L. Ewert, senior engineering manager of Kern's Waste Management Department, said HECA would produce 857 tons a day of waste -- double the amount now created in the county's entire unincorporated area.

Meanwhile, she said, California regulators are pressuring the county to reduce the amount of waste Kern already diverts to landfills. Meeting the state's goal with HECA up and operating, she said, would be "physically and mathematically impossible to do."

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