Gilhooly found on Talbot Street and several other roads nearby a sign forbidding trucks over five tons, according to a standard “gross vehicle rated capacity.” At meetings of the planning board through this past April, he pressed gas-transport presenters to state the gross vehicle capacity of streets such as Catalina and Chatsworth. “They gave no answer,” he says. “When I asked them to name places where their trucks have operated safely, they cited major highways in Nevada. Well, Point Loma neighborhoods are quite a different matter.”
Cynthia Conger is a local real estate agent and former planning board member. She sides with Gilhooly. “I was representing a house on the market whose sewer backed up,” Conger tells me by phone. “Our pipes out here are so old, the water went into the house next door. So imagine what those trucks mean for our roads and the pipes underneath them. There’s no comparison of their effects on the open highway to what they’ll do here.”
The difference is the thick concrete that engineers use to build freeways versus the thinner and weaker asphalt of city streets, says Gilhooly. But the City says the trucks’ 18 wheels distribute the weight. “It doesn’t matter,” says Gilhooly. “Big garbage and other trucks already cause street vibrations that are breaking the pipes below.” He reminds me of a recent breakage at Rosecrans and Nimitz Boulevard. It caused a major tie-up of the intersection.
Let’s come back to safety. Suppose one of the tank trucks gets into an accident or hits a sinkhole on a Point Loma street. “Somebody at one of those meetings,” says Gilhooly, “stated that if a gas tube sprang a leak, the methane would go straight up in the air. Not at 2400 pounds per square inch it won’t. That’s the pressure the methane will be under in those tubes. Pressure in the city-bus tanks is only 2.5 pounds. At 2400, the gas is going in whatever direction the opening points. Someone close enough could be asphyxiated because the methane would suddenly suck all the oxygen out of the air. And if there’s a spark around, look out.
“Before the gas leaves the Point Loma treatment plant,” according to Gilhooly, “equipment will increase the purity of the methane from 63 to over 90 percent. So it’s basically natural gas. You remember what happened at a downtown hotel last year when that natural gas explosion occurred. With this project out here, the City doesn’t even have a disaster management plan. Remember, there are no hospitals in Point Loma. And they’ve got an exemption from having to do an environmental impact report. They say it’s because the gas transport is technically not ‘a project.’ ” (The ordinance that went before the city council said that “this activity is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act…because [it] does not have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment.”)
Gilhooly has been arguing that, instead of trucking methane out of Point Loma, fuel cells should be built at the treatment plant to send electricity out. Last year, he asked the Navy if it was interested in receiving power from the plant and showed me a reply letter he’d received from Captain M.D. Patton, commanding officer of Naval Base Point Loma. On April 2, 2008, Patton wrote: “I…noted your suggestion of in-situ development of methane reuse and fuel cell technology as an alternative to transportation of the methane to a secondary market. We have also looked into that idea, but the City has been unwilling to enter into a long-term agreement (10 years or more) that would make our necessary investment worthwhile.”
In its written report to the city council, the wastewater department said only that “due to a number of constraints, [the] renewable fuel can not be economically used at the [Point Loma treatment facility], the main reason being that the plant’s SDG&E power line is at its maximum rated export capacity.”
According to the City’s Tom Asplaugh, Beneficial Use of Digester Gas is about to enter the permitting process. Construction will start at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant in January 2010, and trucks will start transporting methane approximately a year later.