The specter of garbage trucks exiting Interstate 10 and tearing past their homes to a plant that would vaporize city trash has residents of the Melia Subdivision in New Orleans East worried. But instead of fretting alone, they've aired their concerns with other communities, shared their findings on the new technology and alerted their politicians.
New Orleans-based Sun Energy Group, LLC, founded in 2007, is working on a plan to use electricity to create extreme heat that would zap the molecular bonds of several thousand tons of city rubbish per day. The process produces synthesis gas, which can substitute for natural gas in electricity output. The system can be connected to the local power grid to light up homes.
The proposed plant site is a former Bollinger Shipyards address on Jourdan Road, a half mile from the Melia Subdivision.
Barney Gorey, vice president of external affairs at Sun Energy Group, provided background on the plant, but said details remain under discussion. "We are still in the engineering phase of our project and have not yet filed for government permits," he said. The project is behind schedule because of the state of the economy, but "in the near future we will begin filing for permits and will begin a program to allow the City of New Orleans to become aware of our project and the benefits it has." Over the summer, the Port of New Orleans renewed Sun Energy's option to purchase the 60-acre site near the Industrial Canal.
"This facility will use intense heat to gasify waste," Gorey said, but added that he could not share how much garbage will be handled. He said "our process will have a system for gas cleanup. Dioxins will not be an emission."
Health-threatening dioxins, furans and particulates can be emissions of plasma gasification plants, depending on the types of garbage processed and on emission-cleanup systems at plants. Gorey said a byproduct of the proposed plant will be a black, lava-like substance, which can be granulated for road-bed use or air blown for industrial insulation.
"The plant will not add any additional truck traffic to New Orleans, and we do have a program to clean up any refuse that falls from the trucks," Gorey said. The plant is expected to create 80 higher-than-average paying jobs, mostly for equipment operators.
Sun Energy, Gorey said, welcomes the chance to get involved with the community to explain the economic, engineering, social and educational benefits of the plant. "Plasma gas plants already exist in Japan, Taiwan and Europe, and about a dozen facilities are in development stages across the U.S.," he said.
Sun Energy is headed by chief executive D'Juan Hernandez, a native New Orleanian who earlier worked for power producer NRG Energy, Inc.
Municipalities in the U.S., Canada and other nations are considering plasma gasification as an alternative to landfills and incineration, while officials and residents near proposed plants try to learn more about the new technology. Gasification converts waste to synthesis gas and inert slag, whereas incineration reduces waste to ash.
Louisiana Congressman Joseph Cao went on record in August 2009 opposing the Sun Energy project, and said that its technology had not been fully tested and the plant did not look economically viable, according to his office.
Ting Wang, mechanical engineering professor at the University of New Orleans, said "plasma gasification is a good technology, but when building any plant, its economics and the surrounding community must be considered." He said "industrial plants have to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements, and sometimes they just barely satisfy them, but the company can still look like a good citizen."
Wang said options for garbage disposal are landfill, which is the cheapest solution, and incineration and gasification. Like other industrial plants, plasma gasification facilities can have accidents, and explosions can occur when dealing with synthesis gas. Accidents are one reason that cities have industrial zoning laws to protect the public, he noted.
In the economics of a gasification, a plant can clean up its emissions, and how much it spends on cleaning affects the cost of the electricity it sells. "The cost of operating these plants can end up being much higher than what was first proposed to investors," Wang said. That's important because "consumers usually don't want to pay any extra penny for electricity."
If its plant is built, Sun Energy could have a big impact on the local electricity market. Philip Allison, a Louisiana-based spokesman for Entergy Services, Inc., said "Entergy Corp. met informally with Sun Energy at their request awhile ago about the possibility of buying their electricity. I believe our corporate office asked them for a proposal."
The proposed plant raises a number of environmental and health concerns, opponents say. Sierra Club organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley in New Orleans, said "Sun Energy and others proponents of the plasma gasification technology say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, but their thinking is mired in a black box." In black box thinking, something is considered mainly in terms of its inputs and output. Malek-Wiley said plant emissions, pollution from trucks and pressure on roads are worries, especially given the site's proximity to the Melia subdivision and Interstate 10. "I've heard that 17 trucks an hour could go to and from the plant most of the day, so that's 34 trips an hour, using diesel fuel." he said.
Malek-Wiley believes New Orleans has other options for getting rid of its garbage. For starters, "the city needs to get real serious about recycling and composting waste, both of which can create jobs," he said. Sun Energy says it, too, favors recycling.
Mary Williams, community-outreach program manager at Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, fears that if the plant is built, "traffic on I-10 could be like it was after Katrina, when you had tucks carrying debris up and down the interstate and stuff falling off." In addition to those concerns, she worries about the cost of proper emissions treatment. The upkeep of plasma gasification plants has proven to be very expensive and emissions cleaning adds to costs, she noted.
In the residential area near the proposed plant, Dorothy McWilliams, vice president of the Melia Neighborhood Association, said "we're worried about dripping trucks, odors, plant emissions, our health, road deterioration, property values and the possibility of an explosion." Community and faith-based groups, including Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp., Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association or VAYLA, the Micah Project, Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission or ENONAC, and Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, have met periodically since June 2009 to discuss the plant, she said. In a community meeting at which Sun Energy was present, McWilliams asked about the company's evacuation plan in case of an accident. "But they had no plan," she said.
McWilliams said "we have a number of elderly people in our community -- many with asthma, lung disease, diabetes, thyroid and other ailments that have worsened since Katrina. We don't want anything placed in this area that will add to health concerns." She noted that it's a 20-minute drive to the nearest hospital.
While roads in the Melia Subdivision have been resurfaced recently, "we still have some streets with deplorable holes, so we don't want any additional trucks," McWilliams said. The Melia Subdivision dates back to the early 1950's and has about 2,000 residents, she noted.
Sixteen neighborhood, environmental and faith-based groups sent a letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Aug. 13 asking him to oppose the Sun Energy facility. The letter said plasma gasification plants are dangerous to nearby communities, and "have a history of operational problems, including explosions, cracks in the reactor siding due to high temperatures and corrosion, and leaking waste-water basins."
The letter writers predicted that the plant would undermine recycling, zero waste and renewable-energy programs in the city.
Sun Energy is not seeking financial support from the city of New Orleans for its plant, according to the company. Last year in Sacramento, Calif., a firm that proposed building a similar plant at no cost to that metropolis was voted down 8 to 0 by Sacramento's City Council, after it sent two delegations to Utashinai, Japan to tour a gasification plant there. The Sacramento council felt that the proposed plant was not economically viable and would not contribute to California's effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
(This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Oct. 25, 2010 edition.)