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EPA orders state to modify permit for power plant

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the state’s Clean Air Branch to modify or reissue an air pollution permit for the proposed Hu Honua Bioenergy facility in Pepeekeo.

In a 32-page opinion issued Friday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy ruled that the Clean Air Branch, which is a division of the Department of Health, failed to take into consideration pertinent factors when it issued its permit for the proposed 21.5-megawatt power plant under construction on the 25-acre site of the former Hilo Coast Processing Co. Those issues include pollutants that would be generated during start-up, shutdown and malfunctions in the facility, as well as by certain types of equipment, such as backup generators.

“It requires the state to rescind the permit and either modify it or reissue it; they’ll have to address some of the technical issues that are raised,” said Santa Barbara, Calif.-based attorney Mark Chytilo, who represents the community group Preserve Pepeekeo Health and Environment, on Monday. The group filed a petition under the Clean Air Act asking McCarthy to formally object to the issuance of the permit. That petition was partially granted and partially denied.

“We raised a whole bunch of issues. They didn’t hold for us on all of them, but they held for us on some of the most critical ones,” Chytilo said.

Kerry Drake, associate director of the Air Division in EPA’s San Francisco office, said that the current permit remains valid while the Clean Air Branch drafts another permit proposal.

“The onus is on the Clean Air Branch. They have to revise the permit and propose a new one within 90 days of the date of signature, Feb. 7,” he said. “There were 13 objections that were raised by the Preserve Pepeekeo (group) and we granted them three. And those three were basically to shore up the permit to make sure that all of the emissions were monitored and accounted for, from all the operations, like the emergency generator, and including start-up and shutdown.”

Nolan Hirai, acting director of the Clean Air Branch, said his agency will “have to make some corrections to the existing permit and respond to EPA’s objection, basically,” He said that the issues the EPA found deficient in the original permit “would have to be resolved and addressed” in a new proposed permit to EPA.

“Once we do that, we’re gonna go out for another 30-day public comment period,” he said. Hirai added that if the new permit proposal isn’t submitted within 90 days, “EPA would issue a federal permit in lieu of our state permit.”

The project has been unpopular with nearby residents, who have objected to pollutants, noise and traffic that would be caused by the facility. PPHE spokesperson Elaine Munro, in a written statement, said she was “gratified that the EPA has stepped in to correct an out-of-control state air pollution agency.”

“Our state really doesn’t have a clue on emission rates and how they’re calculated and how they’re projected,” Munro said by telephone. “It’s mainly from the lack of modeling analysis experience they really, clearly don’t have, or they wouldn’t have let that report (by Hu Honua) go. They would’ve questioned it.”

The classification of Hu Honua’s permit is as a “minor” source of air pollution, meaning that the plant would emit fewer than 250 tons per year of so-called “criteria pollutants” such as oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide, fewer than 10 tons per year of any one “hazardous air pollutant” such as hydrochloric acid and acrolein, and fewer than 25 tons per year of all hazardous pollutants combined. Numbers higher than those amounts cause the source to be classified as a “major” source of air pollution under the Clean Air Act.

Chytilo said that the permit application estimates of 246.4 tons of criteria pollutants and 23.8 tons of hazardous pollutants yearly.

“We questioned their analysis,” he said. “I don’t think the EPA dug too deep into these issues because they realized they left out start-up, shutdown and generator emissions. Those emissions, because they’re so close to the line, are going to push it over the line.

“So what EPA did was to kick this thing back to the state to get it right, and the reality is if they re-calculate these things and add in all the sources they excluded before, they’re probably go over 250 tons. It’s gonna be a major source. And then they’ll have to come up with a more aggressive pollution-control technology.”

Chytilo said the consequences of EPA’s decision “go beyond this individual facility.”

“This is not an isolated facility,” he said. “There is a number of biomass or biofuel facilities throughout the country that we’re all looking at pretty carefully. You may say, on one hand, biofuel, what a great idea to reduce our burning of fossil fuels for greenhouse gas purposes, but the reality is that there’s new analysis coming out that even burning wood waste may not be beneficial from a greenhouse gas perspective. Add to that the fact you can’t regulate it; you can’t clean it very well. You can’t clean the fuel very well.

“Air pollution control devices can be very effective at scrubbing pollution out of a waste stream, but they need a uniform and regular effluent stream. Wood waste is never uniform because it’s an irregular fuel. For those reasons, these are issues that have significance well beyond this individual facility.”

Munro called the EPA ruling “a big win for the community.”

I think a lot of us have been concerned about the public health risks of the pollution … from that plant, and I think the EPA ruling is a validation of our concerns for public health.”

The EPA decision comes as Hu Honua faces other legal problems. The company on Thursday issued a written statement saying there is a new general contractor, Performance Mechanical Inc. of Pittsburg, Calif., on its construction site. That announcement came in the wake of the previous general contractor, Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co. of Honolulu, filing a lien application in Hilo Circuit Court claiming Hu Honua owes it more than $35 million in unpaid bills. Several subcontractors and suppliers have recently filed their own lien applications naming Hu Honua, as well.

A Hu Honua spokeswoman did not respond Monday to telephone and email messages seeking comment in time for this story. A Monday phone message for PMI President Don Silva was also not returned by press time.

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