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Residents near SLO airport object to county plan for composting facility

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Trucks—noise, exhaust, leaking liquids, the smell of refuse—are what Kathy Borland envisions will come along with the composting facility recently approved by the SLO County Planning Commission.

“All I see here is more trucks, more trucks, more trucks,” Borland told commissioners during the Aug. 25 hearing on an anaerobic digestion facility planned for Waste Connections’ San Luis Garbage property on Old Santa Fe Road near the SLO airport. 

GREEN VOLTAGE:  The SLO County Planning Commission recently approved the plans for a facility that would take what residents drop into this little bin and morph it into electricity. But some residents aren’t happy about the decision. - PHOTO BY AMANDA ROMERO
  • PHOTO BY AMANDA ROMERO
  • GREEN VOLTAGE: The SLO County Planning Commission recently approved the plans for a facility that would take what residents drop into this little bin and morph it into electricity. But some residents aren’t happy about the decision.

Green-waste trucks that currently transport compostable material to Santa Maria would head for Old Santa Fe Road once the plant is finished. The goal is for that to happen in the next couple of years.

The 43,000-square-foot facility proposed by Hitachi Zosen INOVA would turn the county’s organic waste into electricity without generating greenhouse gas emissions or odor. Although it would be the first anaerobic digestion facility the company has ever built and operated in the U.S., Hitachi Zosen’s been constructing the plants in Europe since 1991. California has at least 21 similar plants either already operating, being constructed, or in the planning process. 

“The concept is not the issue. We love the concept,” Borland told New Times. “The issue is that it’s a done deal.”

She and a group of residents who are sandwiched between the airport and the industrial area along Buckley Road expressed anger at the Aug. 23 meeting, saying they felt the project was pushed through too fast and demanding that the county perform an environmental impact report. 

Area residents said they didn’t necessarily believe the company’s claims that the facility wouldn’t generate bad smells and loud noises. 

Earlier in August, Hitachi Zosen’s West Coast Sales Manager William Skinner told New Times the company has overcome similar concerns in the past, referencing an anaerobic digestion plant Hitachi built in Switzerland.

“They were very concerned when we built the facility in Zürich about noise and odor,” Skinner said. “And three years on, we still haven’t had a noise or odor complaint.” 

But it’s not as much about the plant itself as it is about a larger issue residents have with the county. Borland told New Times she only heard about the project three weeks prior to the meeting, and she only heard about it then because her neighbor told her about it. Borland’s property isn’t close enough to the San Luis Garbage property (within 1,000 feet) to require notification from the county.

“It’s like we’re not even part of this equation, and we’re the ones who have to deal with the impacts,” Borland said, adding that it’s just one more thing residents near the airport will have to deal with. “We’re in the middle of everything; we’re in the middle of TCE [contamination]; we’re in the middle of that stupid helicopter.”

And while she understands that 33 years ago, she purchased a house next to the airport, over the years, the size and scale of the airport has changed and the area surrounding her home has become more and more developed. Take Tap It Brewing Company and the concert music she can hear from her backyard, for example, or the recently approved SLO Brew brewing facility and music venue, The Rock. During the Aug. 23 hearing, 3rd District Planning Commissioner Eric Meyer acknowledged that the way things are zoned doesn’t make it easy for residents near the airport.

“It’s something that is controversial, and there’s nothing I can do about the controversy,” he said, adding that the commission can’t really change the way things are zoned. They simply need to vote on the merits of the project based on where it’s located and what it’s zoned for. “For some reason, county planners decided to put residences next to the airport.” 

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