TERU Focus Report - CalRecycle's AD PEIR

Draft PEIR on Statewide Anaerobic Digestion of MSW
March 21, 2011 --




The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) has released a Draft Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for Statewide Anaerobic Digester Facilities for the Treatment of Municipal Organic Solid Waste (SCH No. 2010042100). The Draft PEIR addresses potential impacts from the development of anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities in California, and is available online. Teru Talk has already posted an Action Item, noting that the public review and comment period for the Draft Program EIR will end on April 4, 2011.


A Program or “Programmatic” Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) becomes an over-arching guidebook for subsequent environmental assessments as a new project’s CEQA compliance can “tier” off of the existing document. A PEIR is intended to provide a comprehensive review of pertinent regulations, policies and social and environmental background conditions. Identification and sensitivity of “receptors” (those living in any area that might be directly impacted by a project) is addressed. The PEIR develops what amounts to Best Management Practices (BMPs), suggesting methods for reducing or eliminating project associated negative impacts. An effective PEIR thus becomes a reliable platform for subsequent project development, greatly reducing a project proponent’s overall research costs and streamlining the mandatory agency reviews.


CalRecycle’s public meeting on March 15, 2011 included a discussion of the Draft PEIR and a period for public comments. This Report very briefly summarizes the 232 page AD PEIR and why it’s important, adds salient points from the discussions at the March 15th Board meeting, and ends with our Recommendations which will form the core of our comments to be formally submitted to CalRecycle.




By developing a PEIR for California’s prospective anaerobic digestion projects, the CalRecycle significantly and positively “impacts” industrial, institutional and municipal efforts to convert bio-degradable waste materials into beneficial, clean commodities. By focusing on the anaerobic “treatment of municipal organic solid waste”, the PEIR delves into one of the most contentious areas of current California regulatory entanglement: how to safely and effectively recover beneficial use from the organic fraction of what we discard, instead of simply disposing of this very valuable resource. The PEIR recognizes that anaerobic digestion is not the only technologic platform for “conversion”, and may not even be the most effective for all types of organic waste fraction conversion to diverse products. Indeed, this is clarified in the third paragraph of the document’s Introduction:


“Some members of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) have a concern that, by preparing the Program EIR, CalRecycle is indicating a preference for AD technologies over other technologies, or that it will appear that way to the public. CalRecycle emphasizes that the intent of this document is not to identify AD facilities as preferred to alternative waste management options, or to identify preferred AD facility systems or vendors.”


The “Project”: AD Initiative - CEQA starts with the identification and description of a “Project”, in this case, a state-wide program termed the AD Initiative designed to encourage and facilitate the development and broad deployment of in-vessel anaerobic digestion systems for the conversion of the organic, biodegradable portion of mixed municipal solid waste (MSW). AD facility development is a targeted effort for CalRecycle under the Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) Climate Change Scoping Plan. The Plan estimated methane emissions from landfills that could be avoided by sending the putrescible organics through the alternative processing pathway of AD. CalRecycle has developed a comprehensive program to foster the development of AD facilities; the AD Initiative is a policy outline combined with a series of discrete actions to implement the policy. This outline and its attendant actions are presented in the PEIR.


Project Objectives – A set of expectations for overall outcome are defined, primarily consisting of the mandates from AB 32 and CalRecycle’s own internal Strategic Directives. The Objectives provide sub-programmatic direction to guide the overall project, and act as metrics against which proposed actions and alternatives might be equally measured:

(1)   Assist in meeting CalRecycle Strategic Directive 6.1: Reduce the amount of organics in the waste stream by 50 percent by 2020.

(2)   Support the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) greenhouse gas reduction measures related to the use of anaerobic digestion:

a.    Measures E-3. Achieve a 33 percent renewable energy mix by 2020 (AD facilities produce biogas which is a renewable energy source).

b.    RW-3. High Recycling / Zero Waste (Anaerobic digestion is one of five subcategories listed under this measure).

(3)   Assist local governments and state agencies (both lead and responsible agencies) by providing program-level analyses that will identify potential environmental effects of AD facilities and discuss mitigation measures or BMPs that can reduce or eliminate the environmental effects.


AD Facilities and Feedstock Types in Scope – Anaerobic digestion platforms abound, with variations on the theme being both subtle and extreme. Form follows function: types of AD processing must be carefully matched to types, volumes and moisture content of the available organic waste. For this PEIR, the clear focus was on AD processing systems that were designed specifically to anaerobically digest the organic fraction of municipal solid waste, including food and food processing waste, green material and mixed solid waste. The AD PEIR did not include all types of systems, neither was the assessed range of feedstock exhaustive. Types assessed did include in-vessel AD facilities located at existing or newly permitted solid waste facilities or stand-alone AD facilities in areas zoned for industrial or solid waste handling activities. NOT included in the study were dairy manure or wastewater treatment plant digesters, and the assessment excludes biosolids, untreated septage, waste co-digested with biosolids at wastewater treatment plants or dairy manure co-digesters, and hazardous waste.


Impacts and Mitigation Measures – The PIER presents a bewildering array of potential impacts associated with development of AD projects, but finds conclusively that all impacts can be reduced to less-than-significant levels with proper design, operational controls and built-in mitigation measures. It is with the itemization of potential AD project impacts and the development of acceptable Mitigation Measures that the Draft PEIR invests the most diligent effort. Of course “the Devil is in the details” … if there are to be difficulties and there are to be benefits, both will come as a result of the selected impacts and proposed mitigations. Future CEQA documents will depend on the specifics, to measure both project design and proposed impact reduction methods.


The document stops short, however, of presenting a draft Mitigation Monitoring or Reporting Program (MMRP), opting to wait until full public / private review has been completed on the main draft: a formal MMRP will be presented in the Final PEIR. CalRecycle recognizes that local agencies will need a “How To” guide for optimal use of the PEIR, since “tiering” subsequent EIRs for the flush of new project proposals they will see will be different from their standard project review process.


California has yet to mandate that CEQA perform impact assessments according to the tenants of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which would seek to define all associated impacts along the chain of project events, and place the consequences of projects in context of existing practices in the project area. The PEIR leans in the direction of an LCA approach, and finds that the alternative waste management methods commonly practiced consistently and dramatically result in higher release of greenhouse gas emissions that would occur using industry-standard anaerobic digestion.


Controversial Call-Outs – Over 50 individuals representing a broad cross-section of stakeholders combined their efforts as the TAG, and repeatedly assembled to inform the Draft PEIR during its research and development. The TAG wisely convened not to reach any consensus, but rather to indicate the range of opinion and disparity of purpose inherent in public and private thought regarding The Project, and in consideration of the management of Waste in general.


It is well understood that CalRecycle chose to pursue a PEIR for the “low hanging fruit” of AD, leaving more contentious approaches (such as thermal conversion of municipal waste) for another day and another assessment. In hindsight, it appears saner to carve an initial path than to undertake major highway construction into the socio-political Wilderness of Waste Conversion.


Considerable disagreement existed well before the Notice of Preparation (NOP) of the PEIR was posted on April 30, 2010: if the state was going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prop up one part of the Waste Management industry, which element needed the attention and support the most? Only eight formal Public Comments were received following the NOP, all from agencies, none from industry or individuals. The TAG members presented their positions and arguments, jockeying for their respective constituents and/or personal beliefs. Thus from Chaos, the Project Alternatives were chosen.


Alternatives Analysis – CEQA requires that the Project be compared and contrasted to “reasonable alternatives” to maintain perspective and provide a means of choosing the lesser of the evils. One alternative must always be the “no project” alternative.


The AD PEIR selects five reasonable alternatives for comparison, each of which is supported strongly by its own adherents:

(1)     WWTP Co-Digestion: absorbing our MSW organics into the anaerobic digestions systems employed to process sewage at our wastewater treatment plants.

(2)     Dairy Co-Digestion: Manure needs food waste to properly feed the anaerobic micro-organisms, and dairy digester developers have long petitioned for this form of co-digestion.

(3)     More Aerobic Composting: incorporate MSW organics, including the food waste, oil and grease (FOG), animal remains and MSW-sourced fiber into an expanded production of agricultural-grade compost.

(4)     In-Ground Wet-Cell Digestion: As demonstrated in Yolo County, the mass of a landfill can be encapsulated, moistened to optimize for anaerobic activity, and the resulting methane-laden gases, extracted.

(5)     No Project: leaving things the way they are.


When the Project and the five Alternatives were held to the light of the Objectives, only (1) WWTP Co-Digestion, and (3) Increased Composting, were found capable of shouldering a significant part of the burden. The difficulty of WWTP digester expansion severely limits that option’s utility when compared to increasing composting facility capacity; neither alternative exhibited the environmental quality control features, the ability for impact mitigation through design, operations and specific controls, as compared to the Project.


Astoundingly, the AD Initiative as the Project triumphed over its competing Alternatives:


“…the proposed project (the AD Initiative) could substantially achieve all the project objectives and could be implemented with mitigation measures that would reduce most of the project impacts to a level that would be less than significant.”


Public Meeting Comments


CalRecycle now convenes relatively informal Monthly Public Meetings, in absence of the austere and structured Board Meetings of the recently deposed Integrated Waste Management Board. The new get-togethers are cordial, comfortable, and … (honestly?) more functional.


Perhaps thirty people attended the meeting on March 15th; looking around the room, most are also found on the TAG members’ list in the Draft PEIR appendices. Here is a sampling of the public comments:

·       Whatever the final PEIR does, do not suggest that we need a whole new layer of regulations stacked on top of Title 14; we have ‘regs’ a-plenty. Modify, as needed, but no new ‘regs’. When it comes to PEIR statements about adherence to the existing ‘regs’, use the term “shall”, not the “should”.

·       Don’t restrict back-up system fuels to “natural gas”, as now in the text. Other clean, legal options exist that should be left to the project and the per-case agency assessments.

·       Similarly, be very careful not to claim the included process descriptions are the only approved and recognized process train configurations. Variations abound and form must follow function; for every “type”, the PEIR might envision a variant will eventually be presented.

·       Expand the understanding that the Project, the AD Initiative, should encompass all aspects of the entire supply chain from feedstock acquisition and pre-processing through final multi-product delivery.

·       Note that “anaerobic digestion of waste sourced organics” as an industrial waste conversion sector technically includes the current use of anaerobic, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) such as species of Clostridium, one of the current favorite FrankenBugs for converting organics to drop-in renewable fuels and green chemicals. Is that within the scope of the Project? Does the PEIR provide sufficient CEQA guidance to effectively tier such a project document? Should it?

·       Biomethane, cleaned and compressed, substitutes for compressed natural gas (CNG). The PEIR needs to emphasize the value of co-locating AD at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), where waste collection fleet vehicles may then be fueled by on-site produced Bio-CNG.

·       Recognizing that AD feedstock is often a sloppy mess – the PIER directs various controls over transport and storage. Transport vessels must be liquid tight, but using the term “sealed” rather than “covered” is too restrictive. Similarly, the length of time feedstock may be stored should reflect on-site storage capacity and effectiveness, not simply be restricted everywhere to the same short time limit.

·       In the Composting alternative: recent success with Covered Area Static Pile (CASP) instead of windrow composting needs to be recognized and allowed as an option.

·       Going forward, all tended to agree that additional local agency guidance is needed. CalRecycle should also track and monitor agency usage of the PEIR in tiered CEQA documents.

·       Composting and any large, open, biomass-oriented waste management activity attracts birds, and birds raise havoc with aircraft, so such proposed operations are required to provide notification to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The PEIR requires FAA notification on all projects; it should only reflect this requirement is pertinent to open air projects, not fully-enclosed operations.

Our Recommendations

These are our recommendations to the CalRecycle for revisions to the Draft PEIR, and we will be submitting formal comments. We may come up with more as we continue our review.

(1)  Improve upon the description of the assessed Project. From staff introductory remarks on March 15th, this was only defined as a result of comments received following release of the NOP. Everything that follows in a CEQA document needs to reflect what is, and just as importantly, what is not part of the Project.

(2)  Recognize the need for similar, parallel, and equally weighted Projects by assessing other potential forms of Waste Conversion for Resource Recovery. Given the burgeoning diversity of Conversion Technologies, emphasize the need for additional PEIRs assessing other pathways.

(3)  The analysis of Alternatives uses very circular logic: the Objectives in part specify anaerobic digestion; therefore any other option that does not utilize AD does not meet those Objectives. Perhaps the question would be more appropriately asked and answered it we considered what type of anaerobic digestion is best suited for what suite of feedstock types, and for production of what desire products?

(4)  Similarly, Objectives that address broader needs should become metrics for comparison of this AD Initiative project against an entirely different suite of Alternatives that are not restricted to anaerobic digestion. CalRecycle Strategic Directive 6.1: Reduce the amount of organics in the waste stream by 50 percent by 2020 certainly is not restrictive to any one technologic approach, and the final PEIR should be very clear in stating just which sub-set of this Objective is being specifically addressed.

(5)  The staff recommendation (discussed March 15th) for a local agency guidance document as a follow-up to the PEIR is excellent, but should simply be released as the First Step in implementing the Project, the AD Initiative, if approved.

(6)  A Second Step that the PEIR should identify as an implementation mechanism for the AD Initiative is development of a Best Practices Manual for AD in California. The PIER already describes many BMPs; place these in a separate Appendix to facilitate future updating. Every technology, certainly every integrated waste management program, can be designed and run well, or poorly. Matching technology type to feedstock is a critical and difficult decision, becoming more bewildering as the diversity of available tools increases. The AD Initiative could, and should, become a resource for tracking and understanding the available options, the appropriate selection criteria, and how to operate the chosen system cleanly and efficiently.


The designated primary contact at CalRecycle is Ken Decio, who can be reached at (916) 341-6313 or Ken.Decio@CalRecycle.ca.gov. Staff suggested that Public Comments (due April 4, 2011 to Ken Decio) would be most useful if they were to focus upon very specific elements of the proposed Impacts and Mitigation Measures. This is certainly needed. Just as important, however, is to make sure we can continue to recognize and assess the forest, while detailing out the pros and cons of the trees.



© Teru Talk by JDMT, Inc 2011. All rights reserved.

You are free to reprint and use this report as long as no changes are made to its content or references and credit is given to the author, Michael Theroux. http://www.terutalk.com


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