Wednesday, March 9, 2011

As Long as Grass Grow and Wind Blow and the Sky is Blue

Fire up the popcorn, it’s time for another installment of When Worlds Collide, our series on what happens when PC meets NIMBY. This week features an entertaining two-on-one grudge match.

The unincorporated town of Mecca, California lies at the north end of the Salton Sea in the agriculturally rich Coachella Valley. Since December, residents have filed 66 complaints about a bad smell from a 10 acre industrial site a couple of miles northwest of town. According to David Danelski of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, who’s been covering the story, the smell was bad enough that some elementary school students vomited.

The source of the stink appears to be Western Environmental, Inc. And what might it be—some outrageous industrial polluter? Why no, it’s a green company.

With the motto “making dirt clean again,” the plant recycles petroleum-contaminated soils that are trucked to Mecca from throughout Southern California. The tainted earth comes from former gas stations, oil derricks, industrial sites and other places where oil, gasoline and hydrocarbons have spilled or leaked.

The company uses special strains of bacteria and heating methods to remove hydrocarbons from huge volumes of earth that can be seen in big piles at the site. Once treated, the soil is re-used as road base, landfill cover and landscaping material.

What’s not to like? The smell, apparently. As with so many other green, eco-friendly environmental services, there’s an invisible cost borne by local residents: malodor.

In Mecca, residents got the attention of the local Air Quality Management District. It should have been a simple matter of citing Western Environmental, Inc. [WEI] for regulatory violations. But not so fast. WEI, is located “on land owned by the Cabazon Mission Band of Indians”. Which raises an interesting question:

Q: Can AQMD enforce its air quality regulations on tribal lands?

A. AQMD and other local and state agencies have no regulatory authority over activities on tribal lands including those located on the Cabazon Band of Mission Indian reservation. However, AQMD is working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which has authority to enforce applicable federal environmental rules and regulations for activities located on tribal lands.

More popcorn, please!
As a result of our ongoing investigation into the odors affecting the community of Mecca, the AQMD has determined that a major source of foul odors impacting the community is an oil/water separation pond located at the Western Environmental, Inc. facility and an adjacent Waste Reduction Technologies’ soy-whey treatment pond, both located on the Cabazon Band of Mission Indian tribal lands and both operated by Western Environmental, Inc.
So far the EPA hasn’t found any federal violations at WEI. And since there is no federal statute against nuisance odors, the residents of Mecca may be shit out of luck. To be fair, however, WEI management has voluntarily responded to the odor complaints.
Mark Patton, a project manager at the plant, said the company did its part to reduce odors by shutting down a pond where oils were separated from wastewater.

The company this month moved about 20,000 gallons of oily water from a pond to a sealed metal tank at a cost of about $75,000, excluding labor, Patton said.

Oddly, a 20,000 gallon oily water pond does not seem to be one of the three processes touted by WEI on its website: thermal treatment, bio-remediation, or chemical fixation. Why would they leave oil contaminated water in a big pond? The oil would just evaporate . . . Oh! . . . [But that wouldn’t be green, would it?]

Here’s a fun fact about Native American culture: the tribe in question was last seen in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, 480 U.S. 202 (1987) which blew open the doors for the fabulous Indian casino binge.

Follow the legal logic, follow the money, and where do you end up? With an Indian Composting Facility coming to a neighborhood near you!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" The oil would just evaporate . . . Oh! . . ."

Well, no...

Actually the separating pond was used to allow the water and oil to, well, separate. The oil would then be skimmed off and put in the monster storage tank (at the north end of the plant near the propane tanks) for resale.

Not to say that it wasn't nasty, it was. But do you have better idea on how to reclaim oil?

I no longer work for WEI, by my own choosing. And I was in Japan during the period that this made the news (except for in Japan).

So I missed the flareup over the smell, but during my time there (about a year), I never noticed a smell in Mecca and I ate at Garibaldi's just about every day.

So don't get me wrong, I don't have a horse in this race. And I no longer have any ties with WEI.

And while the management at WEI left a lot to be desired, they were dead serious about (us, at least) not puncturing the liner, creating any smoke (which we achieved with various degrees of success), keeping the dust down, and basically not drawing any attention to the company.

The *big* issues while I was there was what to do with that mountain of dirt piled up on the north end of the plant (the hydrocarbon pile).

This pile would be prohibitively expensive to treat (we would have to cook the dirt and then run the fumes through a oxidizer). But WEI gets paid on the front end, so they have to take on more dirt to pay for the fuel to treat the existing pile.