Wasco, CA-- Late yesterday, the Sierra Club filed a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit challenging the City of Wasco’s decision to not conduct any environmental review of the Wasco Savage Coal Depot expansion and the potential health impacts on local communities from toxic coal dust. The expansion would deliver 1.5 million tons of coal a year to Wasco for a proposed coal plant near Bakersfield, California, known as Hydrogen Energy California, or HECA. The City’s vote on March 18, 2014, to move forward with the project was a controversial 3-2 vote.
"By rushing this process, there has been no consideration of the impact this huge expansion will have on the residents adjacent to the facility, where over 220 families live,” said Tom Frantz, a local farmer with Association of Irritated Residents (AIR) and former teacher in Wasco. “They will be exposed to unknown quantities of coal dust left behind by the non-stop movement of rail cars. Add in the unloading of coal for 20 hours per day, 365 days out of the year, and you have a real health problem on your hands.”
The depot is located adjacent to the low income, primarily Spanish speaking environmental justice community of Wasco, and expanding its operations to meet the amount of coal required by HECA would significantly increase air and noise pollution in the city, both from coal off-loading and from the numerous diesel-fueled trucks that would carry coal from the depot to the plant. The added rail and truck traffic would increase emissions of smog precursors (nitrogen oxides, or NOx ) and fine diesel particulates. Kern County already has the worst smog and soot levels in the nation causing over $2 billion in health related costs annually.
“We already breathe the dirtiest air in the country, and the proposed HECA plant and Wasco depot expansion would make our problem of bad air and health problems much worse,” said Nora Benavides, a concerned Wasco resident who has family living adjacent to the proposed HECA project. “The city’s decision to ignore the impacts of this coal facility expansion is an environmental justice issue. The residents who will be most impacted are people of color and low income, and the city’s decision keeps them uninformed about the nature of this project.”
The expansion also increases concerns about fugitive coal dust from the rail cars. Coal companies transport coal in uncovered open-top rail cars, which spread coal dust that contains mercury, arsenic, chromium and other heavy metals as they travel and unload. This allows signiﬁcant amounts of coal dust to blow over residential and agricultural areas, and pollute waterways, crops, and local air. Available testimony from the coal industry suggests that each rail car loses roughly 500 pounds of coal and toxic dust per trip.
Currently, 200,000 tons of coal is transported to the Wasco Savage Coal Depot a year, well under the 900,000 tons permitted. The City’s decision, combined with new demand from HECA, would push the annual operating capacity of the coal depot to 1.5 million tons annually. The Wasco Planning Commission approved the Savage project expansion on February 10, 2014 and later the City Council voted 3-2 on March 18, 2014 to approve the expansion.
“It’s completely irresponsible to fast-track this dangerous proposal without fully understanding the impacts. These dirty diesel coal trains will travel through environmental justice communities in Southeast Bakersfield and across Kern County, dumping toxic coal dust into the air,” said Gordon Nipp, Sierra Club’s Kern County Chapter Vice Chair. “By allowing the Wasco expansion to move forward, communities of color and low income neighborhoods will continue to bare the biggest brunt of the pollution and health impacts from our state’s poor energy decisions.”
The proposed coal powered HECA plant, which would receive all the coal from the Wasco terminal, is strongly opposed by Kern County residents, local farmers, farm workers and environmental groups like the Sierra Club. The project, proposed by Massachusetts-based SCS Energy, will have a major impact on air quality in the region by increasing smog and soot, which can cause lung disease, asthma, and premature death. The air permit fails to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act, the state Clean Air Act, and the District regulations.