Despite tens of millions in projected investments and a new state law that requires an overhaul of the city’s recycling practices, Long Beach may continue its longstanding practice of burning waste at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility, also known as SERRF.
The City Council held a study session Tuesday to learn more about the facility that burns trash and converts it into electricity, including state legislation that could strip the city of “waste diversion credits” and the necessary investments it could need to continue running past the end of its current operation’s agreement that ends in June 2024.
Currently, jurisdictions can burn 10% of their solid waste and get credit toward their state-required recycling goals, but that could end if a new state bill is adopted.
The SERRF facility burns solid waste like trash, old medications and illicit drug seizures and converts it into electricity and ash, with the ash being shipped to a Riverside County landfill where it’s used to line landfills so vehicles can drive over it. The site averages about 84 truckloads of ash per week.
It could take more than $66 million in additional capital investments to keep the facility running through 2039, according to a city consultant’s estimate.
The city could also be looking for a new operator and someone to develop an organic recycling center near the facility at the Port of Long Beach so the city can attain compliance with a new state law that requires 75% of organic waste to be diverted from landfills by 2025.
Still, city leaders appear resolved to continue with the SERRF operations, pointing to a lack of alternatives.
“What are the alternatives?” councilmember Al Austin said. “Is this going to be a cost where we’re going to have build new facilities or buy new refuse trucks? Are they going to be clean trucks? Is this a practical approach today?”
Austin had requested the study session earlier this year and said that the idea that the city could be stripped of credits it gets toward its recycling goal through SERRF activities would make it hard to continue operating the facility.
City officials said that the site has reduced the amount of greenhouse gases that would have otherwise been introduced by putting waste into a landfill, and having additional trucks to transport that waste. However, some say the facility still creates a health hazard for neighboring residents.
There is one other site like SERRF in the state and Assembly Bill 1857, which was introduced earlier this year, could force users of those facilities to find other ways to dispose of waste, like landfills, as it tries to rein in air pollution. The site processes waste from 148 jurisdictions.
AB 1857 was authored by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who is running for one of the city’s congressional seats along with Mayor Robert Garcia in this year’s election. The bill has been passed out of committee hearings and could be considered by the full Assembly later this year.
Activists have been opposed to the facility’s continued operation, claiming that it’s adding toxic pollution into an area of the city that is already inundated with emissions from the port, freeway traffic and nearby refineries.
Whitney Amaya, an organizer with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, alleged that the emissions from the SERRF plant are helping to shorten the lives of those who live in frontline communities nearest to it. Amaya called for the city to invest in other modes of getting rid of its waste.
“Contrary to how this has been framed time and time again our only options are not landfills or incinerators,” Amaya said.
A 2018 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit national research and advocacy group, was critical of some states defining sites like SERRF as sources of renewable energy and said closing the 75 trash-burning plants in the country could help local communities and help transform local energy systems.
“Classifying trash burning as ‘renewable’ energy is a dirty secret in many states’ renewable energy goals. Such policies have bolstered this aging, dirty, and costly industry at the expense of cleaner and cheaper sources of energy and waste management strategies,” the report said.
The city is working with a firm to address the long-term viability of the SERRF facility and has identified building an organic waste facility that could turn food scraps and yard clippings into natural gas as a desired outcome along with improvements to the existing facility to reduce waste.
A request for proposals to operate the site could be issued in the coming weeks and the City Council could consider a new contract as soon as the first half of 2023. The city has until the end of 2023 to become fully compliant with the new organic recycling law that could require the purchase of new trucks, waste bins and hiring new employees, all of which city officials said will likely lead to increases for residents’ monthly bills.
Here’s what a new statewide organic recycling law that goes into effect in 2022 means for Long Beach