by Bill Craven
ABC Recycling is the Canadian scrap metal company with eyes on Bellingham for its expansion plans. It already has a lease on the waterfront from a docile and submissive Port of Bellingham where unsightly stacks of metal are stored before being loaded into outbound ocean-going ships. It wants to build a shredder on Marine Drive to create even more volume by shredding cars, appliances, and other scrap. That material, after shredding, would be trucked to the waterfront and then exported by ship. About 40 truck trips a day would be involved in moving material from Marine Drive to the waterfront. There are not any numbers yet on trucks bringing material to the shredder site, but it will be a big number as well.
Needless to say, both the waterfront and the Marine Drive aspects of the ABC Recycling plans have generated opposition. So, what does ABC Recycling do? Why public relations of course! It holds a public outreach meeting at which more than 300 residents squeezed into a Squalicum Harbor building designed to hold 120 people even though the company was advised that the room it had reserved was too small. It then made sure that the powerpoint slides were too small to be read by most in the room.
It had presentations from four to five top company brass (not including the two owners who attended) that took up a lot of the meeting time, and it only got around to answering a fraction of the questions posed by the audience. From ABC Recycling’s perspective, the meeting was a home run. It has said that the slides and the audience questions would be posted on its website, but that had not occurred prior to press time. Nevertheless, from now until eternity it can say it “met with the public.”
Information Nuggets Emerged
So, while the meeting was an unfortunate sideshow, a few new nuggets about the shredder emerged. The company acknowledged that this would be its first shredder, which the company compared as “small” compared to shredders elsewhere. It acknowledged that its effort was motivated by its financial desire to expand into the northwestern region of the United States.
One company exec confirmed that the shredder would be partially enclosed in “sound-attenuating” material, but no technical details were shared. Another said that, citing its own noise study, the noise from the shredder would be 67 decibels “at the highest,” which means either that the sound attenuation will be more robust than any shredder anywhere, or that the 67 decibel claim does not pass the giggle test. It only takes a quick Google search to find a smaller shredder with a smaller motor creating noise measured at 123 dB. Another shredder in Ireland exceeded its 85 dB threshold. The issue for the public is that the county planners will need to impose robust and enforceable noise limitations if the shredder is ultimately permitted. You decide.
The public also learned that the stormwater from the facility will be stored in a detention pond on site. The detention pond is proposed to be built to withstand a “100-year” rainfall event, a name that defines a particular volume, not a frequency. Given the increasing frequency of events of that magnitude, the proposed detention pond could be significantly undersized, risking the uncontrolled overflow of toxic stormwater and sludge.
The shredder will not have a city sewer connection, so all the human waste will be “treated” in place by an on-site septic system and leach field. At one point, an ABC representative indicated the whole facility will be paved, but that seems inconsistent with the presence of a stormwater pond and leach field for the septic system. The site is in a designated groundwater recharge zone, so the issue of whether the detention pond flooding and operation of the septic leach field could harm groundwater will be squarely before county planners.
The public also did not get good answers about how much water the shredder will use (a lot!) or the technology that will be used to control toxic air and particulate emissions. Water is used in the shredding process to cool the equipment, to control dust and sparks, and to prevent explosions, according to a metal industry trade publication. Those are incredibly significant data gaps to leave unanswered at a public meeting designed to answer the public’s questions.
ABC Recycling wanted questions written out and handed to its staff, and some were. However, many questions were simply shouted from the crowd as a reaction to the ABC Recycling PowerPoint slides and we may never know how ABC plans to answer these questions.
The questions that were answered were tangential to the permitting issues. Many in the audience wanted to know why the company was moving to Bellingham. The company said to make money and that it was “welcomed” by the Port of Bellingham. There were several “We don’t want you here” outbursts from the crowd. One set of questions asked if the shredder could expand, and the answer was that any expansion would have to be separately permitted. The public did not get good answers about the hours of operation of the shredder, which one exec said would be normal weekday business hours. The application to the county says operations could go from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
So post-circus sideshow, attention now turns to the two regulatory agencies that will decide if the shredder lives or dies or what conditions will be imposed. Whatcom County has the authority to deny or condition permits for the shredder. The Northwest Clean Air Agency has authority to condition the emissions from the shredder.
Whatcom County Decisions
Whatcom County already held a pre-application meeting with ABC Recycling and some important decisions have been made: (1) The application is considered to be a “major project.” (2) Major projects are required to go through a full review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) which in this case the county has said will likely involve preparation of a full environmental impact statement with corresponding opportunities for public comment. (3) As a major project, it means that the final decision on the shredder will be made in an up or down vote by the County Council, which will review a recommendation of the Hearing Examiner on a closed record hearing, meaning no additional testimony or documents will be allowed before the council. The Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing before making a recommendation to the council.
The SEPA process will involve an analysis of the site’s characteristics, air emissions, stormwater, wildlife, noise, and many other issues. It will identify mitigation that will reduce significant impacts, and the mitigation measures, when included in the permit conditions, are enforceable. If the county finds that mitigation is not possible, it has the legal authority to deny the project.
Mitigation may also involve monitoring and a corrective plan if there are problems.
The county has an existing “Urban Fringe Subarea Plan” that includes the Marine Drive location, which prohibits sewer connections until annexation occurs, and a prohibition on primary metal operations. The latter will be a problem for ABC Recycling as will a similar prohibition in the Whatcom zoning ordinance. ABC execs at the Squalicum Harbor meeting described the output from the shredder as “products manufactured at the shredder,” which is hard to square with a prohibition on “primary metal industries.” One provision allows the “manufacture of miscellaneous metal products” unless prohibited by another section of the code. Sure enough Section 20.68.203 prohibits primary metal industries in the Whatcom County Urban Growth Area. And yes, the Marine Drive location is within the UGA. It may not be long before ABC Recycling spins another phrase to get out from under what the county zoning code clearly prohibits. The county has asked ABC Recycling for its comments on these provisions. It is too early to read much into the county comments as of yet, but it is one of the top issues that could kill the shredder as it is currently proposed and it is a signal that the county is not going to be a patsy like the port was.
Air Quality Issues
A separate regulatory process will occur with respect to whether the emissions from the shredder comply with air quality regulations. This process will be undertaken by the Northwest Clean Air Agency. As background, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state enforcement agencies have found that shredders often violate emission standards for what are called “volatile organic compounds (VOCs).” These emissions come from shredded materials that can vaporize during the shredding process. They include plastics, caulks, sealants, rubber, switches, and various fluids. Even industry publications note that, in addition to VOCs, shredders emit hazardous air pollutions and nuisance odors. In addition to VOCs, emissions that may be released include lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury.
A shredder in Tacoma owned by a larger rival to ABC Recycling recently went through a regulatory process with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to upgrade its shredder. It turns out that Schnitzer Industries did far more to reduce emissions than ABC Recycling has thus far proposed. The Northwest Clean Air Agency may rely to a certain extent on the work already undertaken by its sister agency to the south. In describing the Tacoma facility, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency noted:
“The shredder is currently unenclosed and unabated. Adding an enclosure will capture 95 percent of the emissions from the shredder. The captured emissions will be routed to the proposed regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTOs) to reduce VOC emissions from the metal shredder. The new emission control system will include a high-efficiency dry filtration process for particulate control, and a packed bed acid gas scrubber downstream of the RTO exhaust.”
There is no mention of these emission reductions or technologies in what ABC Recycling has submitted to the county, and it has not yet filed a permit application with the Northwest Clean Air Agency. To be precise, all ABC Recycling has in the SEPA checklist they submitted in October with respect to air emissions control is a reference to misting with water to control dust: “During operations post-construction, the shredder will be equipped with water injection inside the mill box used for fire mitigation, dust suppression (PM), and hammer cooling. Conveyor deposition points will be fixed with water misting to mitigate fugitive dust emissions and all downstream material separation processing will occur inside of the building.” That is hardly a state of the art proposal, which the company must surely know.
ABC Recycling has an interesting history from being started by an itinerant junk peddler to now, four generations later, operating several scrap yards in western Canada. It is a successful business by many accounts. But, the PR side of the business, already struggling from failing to introduce themselves to the community for nearly three years, took a further hit when David Yochlowitz, the current head of the company, told the unconvinced audience at Squalicum Harbor with his rapidly disintegrating poker face that “I would live by shredder. I have no problem with that.” The company’s credibility, already suspect, just tanked.
Bill Craven is a retired environmental professional with more than 30 years experience as a legislative policy consultant on resource issues and as an advocate in state legislatures and for nonprofit organization.