TERU Focus Report - CalRecycle's AD PEIR
on Statewide Anaerobic Digestion of MSW
March 21, 2011 -- Michael Theroux
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) has released a Draft Program
Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for Statewide Anaerobic Digester Facilities for the Treatment of Municipal
Organic Solid Waste (SCH No. 2010042100). The Draft PEIR addresses potential impacts from the development of
anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities in California, and is available online. Teru Talk has already posted an Action Item, noting that the public review and comment period for the
Draft Program EIR will end on April 4, 2011.
A Program or “Programmatic”
Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) becomes an over-arching guidebook
for subsequent environmental assessments as a new project’s CEQA compliance can “tier” off of the existing
document. A PEIR is intended to provide a comprehensive review of pertinent regulations, policies and social and
environmental background conditions. Identification and sensitivity of “receptors” (those living in any area that
might be directly impacted by a project) is addressed. The PEIR develops what amounts to Best Management Practices
(BMPs), suggesting methods for reducing or eliminating project associated negative impacts. An effective PEIR thus
becomes a reliable platform for subsequent project development, greatly reducing a project proponent’s overall
research costs and streamlining the mandatory agency reviews.
CalRecycle’s public meeting on
March 15, 2011 included a discussion of the Draft PEIR and a period for public comments. This Report very briefly
summarizes the 232 page AD PEIR and why it’s important, adds salient points from the discussions at the March 15th
Board meeting, and ends with our Recommendations which will form the core of our comments to be formally submitted
Draft AD PEIR
By developing a PEIR for
California’s prospective anaerobic digestion projects, the CalRecycle significantly and positively “impacts”
industrial, institutional and municipal efforts to convert bio-degradable waste materials into beneficial, clean
commodities. By focusing on the anaerobic “treatment of municipal organic solid waste”, the PEIR delves into one of
the most contentious areas of current California regulatory entanglement: how to safely and effectively recover
beneficial use from the organic fraction of what we discard, instead of simply disposing of this very valuable
resource. The PEIR recognizes that anaerobic digestion is not the only technologic platform for “conversion”, and
may not even be the most effective for all types of organic waste fraction conversion to diverse products. Indeed,
this is clarified in the third paragraph of the document’s Introduction:
“Some members of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) have a
concern that, by preparing the Program EIR, CalRecycle is indicating a preference for AD technologies over other
technologies, or that it will appear that way to the public. CalRecycle emphasizes that the intent of this
document is not to identify AD facilities as preferred to alternative waste management options, or to identify
preferred AD facility systems or vendors.”
The “Project”: AD
Initiative - CEQA starts with the identification and description
of a “Project”, in this case, a state-wide program termed the AD Initiative designed to encourage and
facilitate the development and broad deployment of in-vessel anaerobic digestion systems for the conversion of the
organic, biodegradable portion of mixed municipal solid waste (MSW). AD facility development is a targeted effort
for CalRecycle under the Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) Climate Change Scoping Plan. The Plan estimated methane emissions
from landfills that could be avoided by sending the putrescible organics through the alternative processing pathway
of AD. CalRecycle has developed a comprehensive program to foster the development of AD facilities; the AD
Initiative is a policy outline combined with a series of discrete actions to implement the policy. This outline and
its attendant actions are presented in the PEIR.
Objectives – A set of expectations for overall outcome are defined,
primarily consisting of the mandates from AB 32 and CalRecycle’s own internal Strategic Directives. The Objectives
provide sub-programmatic direction to guide the overall project, and act as metrics against which proposed actions
and alternatives might be equally measured:
(1) Assist in
meeting CalRecycle Strategic Directive 6.1: Reduce the amount of organics in the waste stream by 50 percent by
(2) Support the
California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) greenhouse gas reduction measures related to the use of
E-3. Achieve a 33 percent renewable energy mix by 2020 (AD facilities produce biogas which is a renewable energy
b. RW-3. High
Recycling / Zero Waste (Anaerobic digestion is one of five subcategories listed under this
(3) Assist local
governments and state agencies (both lead and responsible agencies) by providing program-level analyses that will
identify potential environmental effects of AD facilities and discuss mitigation measures or BMPs that can reduce
or eliminate the environmental effects.
AD Facilities and Feedstock
Types in Scope – Anaerobic digestion platforms abound, with
variations on the theme being both subtle and extreme. Form follows function: types of AD processing must be
carefully matched to types, volumes and moisture content of the available organic waste. For this PEIR, the clear
focus was on AD processing systems that were designed specifically to anaerobically digest the organic fraction of
municipal solid waste, including food and food processing waste, green material and mixed solid waste. The AD PEIR
did not include all types of systems, neither was the assessed range of feedstock exhaustive. Types assessed did
include in-vessel AD facilities located at existing or newly permitted solid waste facilities or stand-alone AD
facilities in areas zoned for industrial or solid waste handling activities. NOT included in the study were dairy
manure or wastewater treatment plant digesters, and the assessment excludes biosolids, untreated septage, waste
co-digested with biosolids at wastewater treatment plants or dairy manure co-digesters, and hazardous
Impacts and Mitigation
Measures – The PIER presents a bewildering array of potential impacts
associated with development of AD projects, but finds conclusively that all impacts can be reduced to
less-than-significant levels with proper design, operational controls and built-in mitigation measures. It is with
the itemization of potential AD project impacts and the development of acceptable Mitigation Measures that the
Draft PEIR invests the most diligent effort. Of course “the Devil is in the details” … if there are to be
difficulties and there are to be benefits, both will come as a result of the selected impacts and proposed
mitigations. Future CEQA documents will depend on the specifics, to measure both project design and proposed impact
The document stops short,
however, of presenting a draft Mitigation Monitoring or Reporting Program (MMRP), opting to wait until full public
/ private review has been completed on the main draft: a formal MMRP will be presented in the Final PEIR.
CalRecycle recognizes that local agencies will need a “How To” guide for optimal use of the PEIR, since “tiering”
subsequent EIRs for the flush of new project proposals they will see will be different from their standard project
California has yet to mandate that CEQA perform impact
assessments according to the tenants of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which would seek to define all associated
impacts along the chain of project events, and place the consequences of projects in context of existing practices
in the project area. The PEIR leans in the direction of an LCA approach, and finds that the alternative waste
management methods commonly practiced consistently and dramatically result in higher release of greenhouse gas
emissions that would occur using industry-standard anaerobic digestion.
Call-Outs – Over 50 individuals representing a broad cross-section of
stakeholders combined their efforts as the TAG, and repeatedly assembled to inform the Draft PEIR during its
research and development. The TAG wisely convened not to reach any consensus, but rather to indicate the range of
opinion and disparity of purpose inherent in public and private thought regarding The Project, and in consideration
of the management of Waste in general.
It is well understood that
CalRecycle chose to pursue a PEIR for the “low hanging fruit” of AD, leaving more contentious approaches (such as
thermal conversion of municipal waste) for another day and another assessment. In hindsight, it appears saner to
carve an initial path than to undertake major highway construction into the socio-political Wilderness of Waste
existed well before the Notice of Preparation (NOP) of the PEIR was posted on April 30, 2010: if the state was
going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prop up one part of the Waste Management industry, which element
needed the attention and support the most? Only eight formal Public Comments were received following the NOP, all
from agencies, none from industry or individuals. The TAG members presented their positions and arguments,
jockeying for their respective constituents and/or personal beliefs. Thus from Chaos, the Project Alternatives were
Analysis – CEQA requires that the Project be compared and contrasted
to “reasonable alternatives” to maintain perspective and provide a means of choosing the lesser of the evils. One
alternative must always be the “no project” alternative.
The AD PEIR selects five
reasonable alternatives for comparison, each of which is supported strongly by its own adherents:
(1) WWTP Co-Digestion: absorbing our MSW
organics into the anaerobic digestions systems employed to process sewage at our wastewater treatment
(2) Dairy Co-Digestion: Manure needs
food waste to properly feed the anaerobic micro-organisms, and dairy digester developers have long petitioned
for this form of co-digestion.
(3) More Aerobic Composting: incorporate
MSW organics, including the food waste, oil and grease (FOG), animal remains and MSW-sourced fiber into an
expanded production of agricultural-grade compost.
(4) In-Ground Wet-Cell Digestion: As
demonstrated in Yolo County, the mass of a landfill can be encapsulated, moistened to optimize for
anaerobic activity, and the resulting methane-laden gases, extracted.
(5) No Project: leaving things the way
When the Project and the five
Alternatives were held to the light of the Objectives, only (1) WWTP Co-Digestion, and (3) Increased Composting,
were found capable of shouldering a significant part of the burden. The difficulty of WWTP digester expansion
severely limits that option’s utility when compared to increasing composting facility capacity; neither alternative
exhibited the environmental quality control features, the ability for impact mitigation through design, operations
and specific controls, as compared to the Project.
Astoundingly, the AD Initiative
as the Project triumphed over its competing Alternatives:
“…the proposed project (the AD Initiative) could substantially
achieve all the project objectives and could be implemented with mitigation measures that would reduce most of
the project impacts to a level that would be less than significant.”
CalRecycle now convenes
relatively informal Monthly Public Meetings, in absence of the austere and structured Board Meetings of the
recently deposed Integrated Waste Management Board. The new get-togethers are cordial, comfortable, and …
(honestly?) more functional.
Perhaps thirty people attended
the meeting on March 15th; looking around the room, most are also found on the TAG members’ list in the Draft PEIR
appendices. Here is a sampling of the public comments:
· Whatever the final
PEIR does, do not suggest that we need a whole new layer of regulations stacked on top of Title 14; we have
‘regs’ a-plenty. Modify, as needed, but no new ‘regs’. When it comes to PEIR statements about adherence to the
existing ‘regs’, use the term “shall”, not the “should”.
· Don’t restrict
back-up system fuels to “natural gas”, as now in the text. Other clean, legal options exist that should be left
to the project and the per-case agency assessments.
· Similarly, be very
careful not to claim the included process descriptions are the only approved and recognized process train
configurations. Variations abound and form must follow function; for every “type”, the PEIR might envision a
variant will eventually be presented.
· Expand the
understanding that the Project, the AD Initiative, should encompass all aspects of the entire supply chain from
feedstock acquisition and pre-processing through final multi-product delivery.
· Note that
“anaerobic digestion of waste sourced organics” as an industrial waste conversion sector technically includes
the current use of anaerobic, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) such as species of Clostridium, one of the
current favorite FrankenBugs for converting organics to drop-in renewable fuels and green chemicals. Is that
within the scope of the Project? Does the PEIR provide sufficient CEQA guidance to effectively tier such a
project document? Should it?
· Biomethane, cleaned
and compressed, substitutes for compressed natural gas (CNG). The PEIR needs to emphasize the value of
co-locating AD at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), where waste collection fleet vehicles may then be fueled
by on-site produced Bio-CNG.
· Recognizing that AD
feedstock is often a sloppy mess – the PIER directs various controls over transport and storage. Transport
vessels must be liquid tight, but using the term “sealed” rather than “covered” is too restrictive. Similarly,
the length of time feedstock may be stored should reflect on-site storage capacity and effectiveness, not simply
be restricted everywhere to the same short time limit.
· In the Composting
alternative: recent success with Covered Area Static Pile (CASP) instead of windrow composting needs to be
recognized and allowed as an option.
· Going forward, all
tended to agree that additional local agency guidance is needed. CalRecycle should also track and monitor agency
usage of the PEIR in tiered CEQA documents.
· Composting and any
large, open, biomass-oriented waste management activity attracts birds, and birds raise havoc with aircraft, so
such proposed operations are required to provide notification to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The PEIR
requires FAA notification on all projects; it should only reflect this requirement is pertinent to open air
projects, not fully-enclosed operations.
These are our recommendations to the CalRecycle for
revisions to the Draft PEIR, and we will be submitting formal comments. We may come up with more as we continue our
(1) Improve upon the description of the assessed
Project. From staff introductory remarks on March 15th, this was only defined as a result of comments
received following release of the NOP. Everything that follows in a CEQA document needs to reflect what is, and
just as importantly, what is not part of the Project.
(2) Recognize the need for similar, parallel, and
equally weighted Projects by assessing other potential forms of Waste Conversion
for Resource Recovery. Given the burgeoning diversity of Conversion
Technologies, emphasize the need for additional PEIRs assessing other pathways.
(3) The analysis of Alternatives uses very circular
logic: the Objectives in part specify anaerobic digestion; therefore any other option that does not utilize AD
does not meet those Objectives. Perhaps the question would be more appropriately asked and answered it we
considered what type of anaerobic digestion is best suited for what suite of feedstock types, and for production
of what desire products?
(4) Similarly, Objectives that address broader needs
should become metrics for comparison of this AD Initiative project against an entirely different suite of
Alternatives that are not restricted to anaerobic digestion. CalRecycle Strategic Directive 6.1: Reduce the
amount of organics in the waste stream by 50 percent by 2020 certainly is not restrictive to any one technologic
approach, and the final PEIR should be very clear in stating just which sub-set of this Objective is being
(5) The staff recommendation (discussed March 15th)
for a local agency guidance document as a follow-up to the PEIR is excellent, but should simply be released as
the First Step in implementing the Project, the AD Initiative, if approved.
(6) A Second Step that the PEIR should identify as an
implementation mechanism for the AD Initiative is development of a Best Practices Manual for AD in California.
The PIER already describes many BMPs; place these in a separate Appendix to facilitate future updating. Every
technology, certainly every integrated waste management program, can be designed and run well, or poorly.
Matching technology type to feedstock is a critical and difficult decision, becoming more bewildering as the
diversity of available tools increases. The AD Initiative could, and should, become a resource for tracking and
understanding the available options, the appropriate selection criteria, and how to operate the chosen system
cleanly and efficiently.
The designated primary contact
at CalRecycle is Ken Decio, who can be reached at (916) 341-6313 or Ken.Decio@CalRecycle.ca.gov. Staff suggested
that Public Comments (due April 4, 2011 to Ken Decio) would be most useful if they were to focus upon very specific
elements of the proposed Impacts and Mitigation Measures. This is certainly needed. Just as important, however, is
to make sure we can continue to recognize and assess the forest, while detailing out the pros and cons of the
© Teru Talk by JDMT, Inc 2011. All rights
You are free to reprint and use this report as long as no
changes are made to its content or references and credit is given to the author, Michael Theroux.