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City of Portola discusses: to burn or not to burn

Diana Jorgenson
Staff Writer

Portola’s ERC (environmental reclamation center) is bursting at the seams these days as its pile of green waste — pine needles, branches, yard trimmings — grows and grows.

“Getting rid of the green waste has been a challenge to say the least,” City Manager Leslie Tigan told the City Council at its recent regular meeting.

Burning has been the traditional disposal method in the past, but two years ago, the air quality board stopped issuing the city burn permits.

And so the pile continues to grow and grow.

“If the pile stays as it is today, we may not be able to open (the ERC) this spring,” Tigan cautioned.

Poor air quality at the Portola monitoring station during the years 2005 – 07 led the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District to rescind its fire permitting. Tigan reported that Portola is within 5 percent of exceeding the federal standard for Particulate Matter 2.5.

Most people would cite local air quality as “good” — and so it is. It is not plagued by the emissions found in urban areas. What we do have is Particulate Matter 2.5, i.e., smoke.

In this locale, smoke can come from wildfires, controlled burns by the U.S. Forest Service, landfill and backyard burning, and woodstoves or fireplaces.

The air district reacted to the area’s dangerous peaks by stopping burns at the landfill and narrowing the Forest Service’s burn season. At the City Council meeting, Air Pollution Control Specialist George Ozanich told the council that the Forest Service applies for a new permit each year.

He added that the air district is paying increased attention to weather patterns before issuing permits.

Since unhealthy air quality due to wildfires in 2008, the city has enacted a woodstove change-out program to replace old and inefficient woodstoves with new ones that burn more cleanly.

To date, six stoves have been changed out and because two of them are near the monitoring device, this has probably helped the situation.

Tigan said that there was still money in the fund for other stove change-outs inside city limits.

“We’re doing a lot better and this gets us through a few years, but we don’t know if it’s going to continue this way,” she said.

The air district looks at three-year increments and for the past two years, air quality has improved. Everyone wants to see it stay that way.

So, burning the green waste at the old landfill site is no one’s favorite option.

Not the air district’s. Not the city’s and not that of the ERC’s contracted operator, InterMountain Disposal.

IMD’s Ricky Ross told the council that burning the green waste will require 40 man-hours and a loader during the burn and is much more expensive than chipping and hauling.

A chipper, by comparison, will haul it away for free and receive payment from the co-gen plant he hauls to.

The city’s solid waste consultant, Tom Valentino, explained that the chipper he had contacted was eager to do the job, but had no place to sell the waste within hauling distance. All known co-gen facilities are either shut down, like Loyalton’s, or have stockpiled material, like Quincy’s.

“Our pool of available resources is severely limited right now,” Valentino said.

Ozanich countered that this situation can change: A decrease in the availability of small logs can increase Sierra Pacific Industries’ need to purchase material at its Quincy mill and there are rumors that the Loyalton plant might have a buyer.

Neither of these possibilities was considered timely enough to diffuse the current problem.

Richard Ross, IMD employee and Ricky’s son, thought that, with some moving around of material, IMD might be able to accept green waste for another two months, at most.

Other solutions to the problem are also too far in the future to solve the immediate dilemma, but they exist. Ricky Ross mentioned that the Forest Service is beginning to use baled pine needles to help with erosion in burned over areas.

Caltrans is also making them into wattles that it places along highways for erosion control, Ozanich offered.

Both want “clean” pine needles for their purposes.

Lacking alternatives, the city has asked the air quality board for a burn permit.

Ozanich responded that the air district is amenable to that. The 2011 values look good thus far and the ERC is on the east side of town, with prevailing winds going from west to east.

“We don’t want to see increased (backyard) burning here in town,” Ozanich said. “Especially wet pine needles. They don’t burn, they just smoke and smolder and hang in the air for days and days. We can’t afford some high numbers as we approach the end of the year.”

There was some discussion about whether the air district would require the city to ban backyard burning in exchange for burning in a centralized location at the ERC.

Mayor Dan Wilson pointed out that keeping waste in backyards is a fire hazard and not all residents have pickup trucks for hauling it to the landfill.

City Attorney Steve Gross was concerned that the burn permit might have an expiration date and if an ordinance banning backyard burning were in force, it would leave residents without any alternatives for disposing of green waste.

Ozanich said that, at first, he had thought, “What a great trade — a burn permit for banning backyard burning.” But then he understood the implications and right now, he said, he wants to see the pile reduced so that people can continue to dump rather than burn in their own yards.

Ricky Ross agreed. “That pile is big. And it’s dense.”

Ozanich hoped that chipping would still come into play — “There’s a lot of things that can happen in a couple of months” — but thought it necessary to reduce the pile’s size and to coordinate the burning with Forest Service burns and weather.

He said he would begin the process to request a burn permit for the city of Portola.

Ricky Ross said he was hoping for the chipper, but wanted to burn a portion of the pile.

Richard Ross agreed that he would need to separate out a portion. “I’m not going to light that bad boy off — not the whole pile. It’s immense.”


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