State regulators want to know why Spokane’s trash incinerator burned 177 tons of coal during last November’s ice storm, when it’s supposed to burn only garbage.
They also are asking why Spokane officials delayed reporting carbon monoxide emissions that soared while plant operators tried to burn tons of wet storm debris.
The coal was added in an unsuccessful attempt to raise the fire temperature and reduce carbon monoxide emissions, which jumped up to 15 times more than allowed.
City officials are fighting a February notice of violation from the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority over emissions recorded Nov. 19 to 30.
SCAPCA’s letter said the city could be fined up to $10,000 per day for each air quality violation - potentially more than $100,000.
In a series of letters, city officials said the ice storm emergency justified their actions. They are seeking a letter from Spokane County’s emergency services office saying the crisis allowed them to sidestep air quality laws.
“We did not have a written directive. But we were part of the response team that was handling the emergency,” said Damon Taam, acting director of Spokane’s solid waste department.
The Washington Department of Ecology also weighed into the dispute.
In a July 3 letter, Ecology said the city may have violated its state permit to operate the trash burner by emitting too much carbon monoxide and allowing coal to be burned.
Spokane officials also “failed to comply with reporting requirements and failed to take corrective actions after violations were identified,” said Gregory Flibbert of the Washington Department of Ecology’s air enforcement program.
A meeting to discuss the violations is scheduled July 22, said Grant Pfeifer, Ecology’s top air quality official in Eastern Washington. Ecology also may conduct a special inspection of the garbage burner, Pfeifer said.
City officials said they did nothing wrong. The Nov. 19 storm paralyzed the city and disrupted normal garbage pickup, said Taam.
“We handled 48,200 tons of ice storm debris. Four tons went through the plant. It was an extraordinary situation” that cost the city $2.2 million, Taam said.
As tree limbs fell, garbage trucks were pulled off their routes to haul debris to the incinerator. Four tons of wood were dumped in the plant’s big pit.
But when operators tried to burn the wet, ice-encrusted wood, carbon monoxide levels soared, records show.
“We didn’t anticipate that much moisture in the wood,” Taam said. He delayed reporting the problems to SCAPCA because his phones were out, Taam said.
On Nov. 25, Wheelabrator Spokane Inc. managers, who run the incinerator, decided to buy $19,000 worth of coal to make the fire burn hotter.
“It was their decision,” Taam said. Wheelabrator, not ratepayers, paid for the coal.
The coal helped, but didn’t eliminate the carbon monoxide problem. On Nov. 26, plant operators hauled much of the ice storm debris off the plant floor and stockpiled it for disposal later, Taam said.
“We responded quickly as soon as we knew this wasn’t going to work,” he said.
Local air quality cops are sticking by their decision to fine the city.
“Our position all along has been, yes there was an emergency. But was it absolutely necessary for these exceedances to go on as long as they did?” said Eric Skelton, SCAPCA director.
The plant is allowed to emit 100 parts per million of carbon monoxide over eight hours.
The ice storm emissions ranged from 108 to 1,557 parts per million of the colorless, odorless gas. That’s a significant permit violation but not a health emergency, officials said.
“They should have figured out pretty quickly what was causing the problem with the boiler - the wet ice storm debris,” Skelton said.
The city didn’t notify SCAPCA about Wheelabrator’s decision to burn coal. That decision was made after a meeting with SCAPCA where the carbon monoxide problems were discussed.
“We only found out about (the coal) after we issued our notice of violation,” Skelton said.
Spokane officials “probably should have” told regulators about the coal, Taam said.
Clean air fines against the waste-to-energy plant have been rare. In August 1992, SCAPCA fined the city $250 for failing to report a plant breakdown.
Skelton wanted to fine the city for deciding to burn tons of used Canadian pesticide containers in the plant in 1994. But the SCAPCA board, led by then-Spokane County Commissioner Pat Mummey, overruled Skelton.
Following the pesticide flap, Ecology was supposed to broker an agreement between the city and SCAPCA about what could be burned in the garbage plant. But that effort “fizzled out,” Pfeiffer said Thursday.