Noise from landfill gas-to-energy facility prompts complaints
December 21, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Operator completed steps to reduce sound emissions
The droning sound started about the same time a landfill gas-to-energy facility fired up to turn the byproduct of decomposing trash into fuel for power plants.
Rural King County residents, accustomed to the smells and sounds emanating from Cedar Hills Regional Landfill and nearby Cedar Grove Composting, noticed the latest addition not long after the gas facility entered operation last year.
Leaders had hailed the project as a milestone for renewable energy, but for many residents in neighborhoods south of Issaquah, the Bio Energy Washington gas facility turned out to be a headache.
“Before we built this facility, the county told us, ‘Look, sound is going to be a big deal here,’” Chuck Packard, Ingenco president and CEO, said at a meeting in Issaquah to address residents’ concerns.
Bio Energy Washington is part of Ingenco, a company specializing in renewable energy facilities.
The county had only received a couple of complaints about the gas facility until residents raised the issue in September at a routine meeting related to landfill operations.
Representatives from the King County Solid Waste Division and Bio Energy Washington met residents at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Nov. 16 to address issues related to noise.
The landfill encompasses 920 acres in unincorporated King County between Issaquah and Maple Valley.
Ingenco is based in Richmond, Va., and has operations at landfills in Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The county indeed emphasized the prospect of sound emissions before construction started. Ingenco hired a sound consultant to measure noise in neighborhoods near the landfill and at the plant site.
“If people say, ‘Gee, I don’t want to hear any sound,’ I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to do that, because the human ear is very, very good at picking up sound,” Packard said.
‘Challenging place to live’
The facility — a maze of metal pipes, bus-sized tanks and squat buildings — is almost as loud as a jet engine at the landfill, but operators said Bio Energy Washington has adopted a series of measures to meet King County noise requirements in the neighborhoods near the facility.
“We endeavor, wherever we operate, to have very good relations with the neighbors,” Packard said. “By the nature of our business, we often are working at landfills and people that live around any landfill — I don’t care where it is — living around a landfill can be a challenging place to live.”
The county noise ordinance in the rural area near the landfill allows 49 decibels in the daytime and 39 decibels at night. Packard said a sound consultant hired by Bio Energy Washington recorded background sound levels — from rain, insects and other sources unrelated to the facility — at 43 decibels in the middle of the night.
“We are in compliance with the ordinance. We’ve checked that box,” Packard said. “We may not have gone as far as we need to go with regard to the good neighbor standard.”
Residents in the neighborhoods near the landfill said the nature of the sound is more of a problem than the volume. Many attendees at the Issaquah meeting described the noise a near-constant hum.
The droning sound is a step up from the noise residents said the plant produced in the early days. Residents described groans and whistles — including a noise like a train whistle — as the plant operated.
The plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days per week.
The sound consultant recommended a series of noise-reduction measures about a year ago. So, Bio Energy Washington blanketed equipment and pipes in material to absorb sound. The company completed a round of the upgrades in February and completed additional mitigation efforts in November.
“What we know we did is reduce the level of sound emissions coming from the plant,” Packard said.
Facility faces setbacks
Though the measures alleviated some of the problems, some residents asked if more could be done to reduce noise from the facility.
“People have said, ‘Can’t you put the thing inside a building or something?’” Packard said. “Well, we can’t put it inside a building because it’s a gas-processing facility, and it would be hazardous to even attempt to do that.”
Bio Energy Washington is also required to measure sound levels near the facility as part of the agreement between the company and the county.
“Now, I have to tell you, 39 decibels is not a lot of noise. It’s very, very quiet really,” Packard said. “It’s the most restrictive ordinance that any of our facilities are subjected to.”
The facility is located near the landfill offices on land leased from the county. Bio Energy Washington owns and operates the gas facility.
The arrangement has confused landfill neighbors.
So, officials directed residents to contact both the Solid Waste Division and Bio Energy Washington about noise issues.
“We do look and see what we can determine,” Solid Waste Division Director Kevin Kiernan said. “Now, we can’t always figure it out, but we will always answer and get back to you and tell you what we’ve found.”
The county sought for years to find a company to transform the byproduct into pipeline-quality gas.
In 1992, King County Council members authorized the county executive to find a partner for the project.
Then-County Executive Ron Sims announced the project in 2001 and said the project should start producing energy in early 2003.
The county and a company called Bio Energy signed a contract in 2004, but delays plagued the project and the initial contractor dropped plans to build the facility.
County Council members authorized the Ingenco agreement in 2007, and county leaders signed the contract in February 2008.
Crews completed major construction on the facility in March 2009 and testing started on key systems.
Trash to renewable energy
The county said the gas processing efficiency at the facility reached between 80 percent and 92 percent by September 2010.
“Our company’s priorities are No. 1 safety, No. 2 environmental compliance and then No. 3 would be operations, in that order,” Packard said.
Some revenue from the facility is directed to the Solid Waste Division to help offset waste disposal rates for customers.
Kiernan said the facility has helped reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the landfill. The facility prevents 125,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year from entering the atmosphere. The amount of sulfur dioxide emissions has been reduced by 99 percent.
“The landfill is generating this gas every minute of every day,” Plant Manager Jeff Brown said.
The gas facility removes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other impurities from the gas as part of the refining process.
“That energy was just going up the stack. It was something wasted,” Kiernan said. “Now, it’s being productively put into the pipeline.”
The facility is designed to refine enough natural gas to provide electricity to more than 20,000 homes.
Puget Sound Energy purchases the gas. Then, the material is used to feed natural gas-fired power plants. Customers throughout the PSE service area also use the product.
PSE built a branch off the main pipeline to reach the landfill facility. The utility is also in the process of upgrading power supply equipment to serve the landfill.
Roger Thompson, a spokesman for the Bellevue-based utility, said such waste-to-energy products offer a source of renewable energy. Hiccups should be expected as the system comes online, he said.
“The benefit that we gain from this landfill is natural gas sufficient to power about 24,000 homes, so it’s a substantial supply of gas that in the past was simply flared off,” Thompson said.
What to know
King County residents can report noise complaints related to the landfill gas-to-energy facility to the King County Solid Waste Division or the plant operator, Bio Energy Washington.
Call the Solid Waste Division at 206-296-4490 and Bio Energy Washington at 392-3918. Contact the organizations online at www.kingcounty.gov/solidwaste and www.bioenergy-wa.com. Visitors should log in as “bioguest” and use the password “BEWplnt9” to access the site.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.