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Biomass power plants in Merced, Madera counties fined $830,000 for clean air violations

Two companies, including one who operates a biomass plant in El Nido, have agreed to pay a combined civil penalty of $835,000 to resolve alleged violations of federal Clean Air Act and rules for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District, according to a United States Environmental Protection Agency press release.

Ampersand Chowchilla Biomass and Merced Power are required to pay $328,000 and $492,000 respectively for the alleged violations, according to the EPA. Merced Power operates the El Nido biomass plant, while Ampersand Chowchilla Biomass operates a plant in Chowchilla.

The violations included excess emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides -- a precursor to ozone --and fine particulates, according to the EPA.

"EPA is committed to doing our part to tackle the worst air quality in the nation. Today's enforcement actions are a victory for human health,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. "San Joaquin Valley communities can now breathe easier as a result of the significant pollution controls won in these settlements." The settlements require the facilities to install devices to improve monitoring and reporting of air pollutants; enhance automation of the control systems for nitrogen oxides emissions and prepare more stringent control plans to minimize emissions of air pollutants.

As a part of this action, the companies have installed controls that reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides by up to 180 tons per year and carbon monoxide by up to 365 tons per year. The EPA and district will continue to monitor both facilities for an additional two years to ensure completion of all requirements, according to the press release.

Ampersand Chowchilla Biomass are also required to pay an extra $15,000 to the district for a district-only violation, according to the press release.

After refurbishing the plants in 2007-2008, Ampersand Chowchilla Biomass and Merced Power initiated operations in 2008. A joint investigation by the EPA and District found that Ampersand Chowchilla Biomass and Merced Power violated the air permits issued to them by the District by emitting air pollutants including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide in excess of the permit limits.

In addition, they failed to perform timely source testing to measure emissions of various air pollutants. They also didn't properly install and operate emissions control systems for nitrogen oxides or certify the continuous emissions monitoring systems.

The plants also violated various district rules including requirements for emissions control plans, according to the EPA.

Biomass power plants use green waste from farms and other operations that would otherwise be subject to open burning, and construction debris that might have gone to a landfill, to generate power.

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