The future of the Long Beach facility that burns trash and converts it to energy is in question as a new state law will likely upend its finances.
The City Council is slated to consider a contract at its Tuesday meeting that could help alleviate immediate concerns, but a long-term plan for the site is still unclear.
Since 1988, the city has used the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility near the Port of Long Beach to burn the bulk of its non-recycled trash to create energy, which it sells. The site’s roster of clients grew to about 150 by 2022, but that list is dwindling after a new state law stripped the credits that cities previously received for burning their trash at the site. Long Beach was one of two cities in the state that had such a facility.
Assembly Bill 1857, which was signed into law last year, did away with the credits, which cities were able to put toward their recycling goals for burning their trash at SERRF. City officials have said the loss of clients could amount to $2 million per month in lost revenue.
The site had previously been operating at an annual loss of about $4 million.
On Tuesday, the City Council could approve a contract amendment with Covanta, the company that operates the city-owned site, that would give Covanta all the future revenues for sales of electricity and hauling rates paid by other agencies, while freeing the city of its financial liabilities. The contract would run through June 2024.
Bob Dowell, director of the Long Beach Energy Resources Department, said when he took into account both the new law and a survey that indicated most—if not all—of the 148 agencies that used SERRF in the past would no longer do so, the move to offload the responsibility from the city to Covanta seemed to be the right choice.
Hauling to SERRF—where cities could get credit for 10% of a state requirement to either recycle or otherwise divert 50% of their waste from landfills—used to make sense, Dowell said. But without the credits, cities have said they’re likely to send their waste to landfills, where it costs approximately $68 per ton rather than send it to SERRF, which charged about $109 per ton.
In a memo to the council, Dowell projected that if the city moved forward under the current contract, the SERRF fund could be negative by May, but the rapidly depleting funds could require the facility to be closed as soon as February.
“We wanted to maintain the $6 million we think we need to decommission the site,” Dowell said of the funds the city has stored away for the future.
Closing the site could require the city to haul its trash farther away to landfills, potentially as far away as Arizona, which could increase costs and put the city out of compliance with its own climate action plan, Dowell said.
The future of the site has been in question for some time. A consultant told the city last year that it would cost about $66 million in investments to keep the site running through 2039 and new laws like AB-1857, along with a new statewide law that will require cities to divert organic waste from landfills to cut down methane production, have city officials working to figure out solutions.
A request-for-proposals is expected to be sent out in the coming months for a possible conversion of the site into an organic waste processing site, which could turn the food scraps, yard clippings and other compostable materials required to be diverted from landfills into things like natural gas for vehicles.
The city has already raised trash rates in anticipation of having to comply with the organic recycling law by the end of this year, however, another new state law only requires 33% compliance this year and moves the mandate for 100% compliance to 2025.
Dowell said that it could be challenging to build on the site because it’s so small (12 acres) and could face permitting obstacles. The site could be subject to California Coastal Commission approval, require an environmental impact report and potentially require permits from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Dowell said.
It could also face opposition from local activist groups that have called for the SERRF facility to be shuttered because of the pollution it creates in an area that already sees significant environmental health concerns.
But there has been early interest from a number of new operators that use emerging technologies like “gasification” to turn trash into harvestable commodities, Dowell said. There’s also the potential to use the site with a hybrid approach, where trash incineration remains an element of trash disposal but some other technology is worked into the site’s footprint.
Whatever it is will likely be more expensive than what the city has used for the past few decades, Dowell said, and that needs to be factored into future plans for the SERRF site.
“You’ve got to make it so it’s not so expensive people won’t use it,” Dowell said.