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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

In this fle photo, Karen Hollweg protests the proposed HECA project in Kern County.

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

Tom Frantz expresses his views on the proposed HECA project in Kern County.

Kern County Supervisors on Tuesday raised concerns about the controversial Hydrogen Energy California plant proposed near Tupman.

"We had an interesting exercise in civic discourse," Supervisor Mike Maggard said when it was all done.

Despite more than three hours of testimony from supporters, regulators and a host of worried opponents of the project, supervisors could do nothing more than vote to send their opinions in a letter to the California Energy Commission.

Kern County has no regulatory power over the project.

"I don't like to be in a position where I'm passing judgment on something but I'm not really passing judgment on something," Supervisor Mick Gleason said.

Supervisors did what they could, voting unanimously to ask the energy commission to allow the project in another location and make the HECA project comply with county requirements.

County staff raised a number of serious concerns about the project -- from the 300-plus truckloads of petroleum coke and coal the massive power plant would take in each day, to the 400 to 800 tons of "obsidian-like lump of leftovers" that Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said would come out of the plant daily.

Supervisors wondered where the money would come from to handle the damage trucks would do to rural county roads or where all that waste product -- enough to put the county seriously out of compliance with state waste diversion standards -- would be dumped.

Oviatt said that on many of those questions, she simply did not have answers because she wasn't in a position to compel anyone to provide them.

Area residents and a strong contingent from the farming and ranching community voiced serious opposition to the project.

They questioned the air quality impacts of the project, the impact on water-quality, the loss of good agricultural land to a power plant and the danger that the plant could produce hazardous chemicals that could hurt residents or schoolchildren in Tupman.

Seyed Sadredin, who leads the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, was booed for supporting the efforts of the developer to mitigate impacts to air quality.

"At the end of the day, from an air quality standpoint, this project will have a net benefit," he said.

But most of the county's ideas for mitigating potential problems at the plant are just ideas. The county must send them to the California Energy Commission and hope the commission addresses them.

And supervisors said they simply did not leave Tuesday's hearing with any confidence that the project would be a good addition to Kern County.

"I would really like to be in favor of the project. But I'm more worried about it than excited about it and I don't have a farm that's at jeopardy," Supervisor David Couch said.

Project details

As proposed, the Hydrogen Energy California project would turn coal and petroleum coke into nitrogen-rich products, including fertilizers. Alternately, during times of peak demand for electricity, the 453-acre project would generate about 300 megawatts of power for sale and make carbon dioxide for use in nearby oil production.

HECA's Massachusetts-based owner, SCS Energy LLC, estimates that the plant would also create up to 200 permanent jobs and provide a test of carbon-burying technology. The project has been subsidized by a $408 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

While final project approval is up to the California Energy Commission later this year, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has tentatively agreed to grant the project an air permit.

Pre-meeting protest

Shortly before Tuesday's meeting, about three dozen opponents of the project demonstrated outside the supervisors' chambers. The group included local environmentalists, farmers and others worried about air pollution and other negative impacts associated with the project.

Organizer Tom Frantz, an environmental activist who farms nuts about 10 miles from the project site, said the board should push HECA for additional concessions to make up for the farmland that would be lost under the proposal, as well as the air pollution and industrial waste it would create.

"The Board of Supervisors' interpretation of this project has a big pull with the (state Energy Commission) in how the CEC will ... demand mitigation," Frantz said.

Protester Suzy Carver, a Bakersfield commercial and residential developer, said she supports local growth, "but not at any cost."

"At the end of the day, (the project) is just going to make our air that much dirtier," she said.

Farmer Mark Lambooy said he was concerned about the traffic and road damage that would result from the many trucks carrying fuel to the project and hauling waste from it. He said such activity could affect his crops.

"Where's the guarantee that we won't be affected in a negative way?" he asked.