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Claude Hendrickson spent last year overseeing the unbolting, de-welding, piling up and labeling of the more than a million girders, doors, door handles, switches, generators and other structural ephemera that once made up the Sandow Power Plant in Rockdale, Texas.
Then his company, Dixie Demolition Inc., put the disassembled power plant into more than 400 containers and shipped it to Chile. Over the next couple of years, the plant will be reassembled and feed electricity into that country’s national grid, powering iPhones in Santiago and lamps in Valparaiso instead of microwaves in Austin and toasters in Houston.
“Instead of something being scrapped, it’s gonna have a new life creating electricity in South America and I think that’s pretty cool,” Hendrickson, whose company has taken down power plants in several states, drawled in Alabamian.
A similar fate could await the South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista. Growing demands for energy, particularly in the developing world, could play a part in determining the ultimate fate of the hulking mass of metal that for 50 years has cast a shadow over Chula Vista’s bay front.
Even if the plant, which occupies 115 acres of prime bay front land and once generated more than 700 megawatts of power, is not shipped somewhere else, its takedown will certainly be more of a massive recycling operation than a destruction project.
Since the plant was shut off on New Year’s Eve, a slow and laborious process has begun to rid the bay of the behemoth.
The exact plan for tearing it down isn’t known. But it will take about two years to demolish it, work that can’t start until at least a dozen different government agencies have issued work permits for the site, a process that has barely begun and is likely to stretch into 2012.
Once the plant itself has been pulled down, then the real work starts: The cleanup of the site and the bay front, which could take years and end up costing tens of millions of dollars. The Hunters Point Power Plant in San Francisco, which is similar to the South Bay plant, took two years to demolish, from 2006 to 2008, but the cleanup is still ongoing almost five years after the plant was closed down.
The successful future development of Chula Vista’s bay front, and the psychological and fiscal boost that it could bring for residents, can’t come quick enough for a city roiling from the real estate bust. All eyes in Chula Vista will be on the demolition and cleanup effort.
This is what it will look like.
The South Bay Power Plant is a 175-foot-tall pile of steel, concrete, wood, copper and other raw materials just waiting to be recycled.
Inside it are working parts — massive furnaces that burned oil and gas to heat water into steam, turbines that turned that steam into electricity and thousands of other circuits, gadgets, gizmos and widgets that helped turn water into wattage.
Those elements, assuming they’re still working, can be removed intact and sold via brokers to power companies in developing countries and elsewhere.
But power plants also have all sorts of carcinogenic and toxic materials in them. Hendrickson said good contractors have to be open about that from the start with local residents. That means talking to city leaders and environmental and community groups before the company unscrews a single bolt, he said.
“We pull our skirts up and we say, ‘Here it is, boys and girls, all the warts and all, the whole deal,’” Hendrickson said. “Power plants have things like asbestos in them. They have mercury in them. They have things like PCBs in them (polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic compounds used in electronic components like transformers until they were banned in 1979) and that’s just a fact of life.”
The city of Chula Vista, which will be issuing the initial demolition permits, has pledged to complete those as quickly as possible. But Dynegy, the Houston-based power company that has been operating the plant and is currently responsible for its demolition will also need to secure permits from a dozen agencies.
The three players in the project, the Unified Port of San Diego, Chula Vista and Dynegy have agreed to pursue a streamlined process to get the project over the tough first hurdle of assessing the demolition’s environmental impacts. That assessment will take at least five to nine months, and David Byford, a Dynegy spokesman, said the company probably won’t have all the necessary paperwork to start actually tearing down the plant until 2012.
The first stage of the actual demolition is to go in and take all the nasty stuff out.
First, workers remove anything from the structure that might contain toxic or dangerous elements like mercury, PCBs or lead. That means taking out everything from transformers to fluorescent light bulbs to storage containers that once held oil or gas.
That’s done by hand. A crew of workers goes painstakingly through the building, labeling anything that contains these materials and physically unbolting and removing them.
Even mercury has value as scrap, Hendrickson said, and if a company can collect enough of it from a plant, it can separate the mercury from switches and machinery, combine it, and sell that as well.
But most toxic elements from a site are sealed in containers, trucked to a hazardous waste landfill and buried underground, said David Zarider, a senior vice president with Lowell, Mass.-headquartered TRC Companies Inc., which runs a power plant demolition program.
Once the mercury and other toxic materials have been removed from the South Bay Power Plant, the demolition company will have to remove large amounts of asbestos.
Asbestos, which has been banned in construction since 1989, was once the primary material used for insulation, and oil- and gas-fired power plants like the one in the South Bay required a lot of insulation — sometimes millions of pounds — because of the huge amounts of heat given off by the furnaces and turbines.
This phase of the demolition poses an extra challenge because asbestos, when moved around, can become airborne, posing possible health risks for people in the surrounding areas.
So the demolition company has to enclose the parts of the plant where the asbestos is housed, something that’s usually done by literally wrapping the building, floor-by-floor or room-by-room, in plastic.
Once the area has been enclosed, the demolition company uses a “negative-air machine,” which makes the air pressure inside the wrapped area lower than the pressure outside. That stops asbestos fibers from escaping, and crews of workers wearing protective clothing and masks can then go through and double-bag the asbestos, which is put into special sealed containers and trucked out of the site. Those containers are then taken to a landfill site where the asbestos is carefully buried underground.
From this point onward, taking down the structure, no matter how big, is a case of reversing all the construction that went into building, Hendrickson said.
“You start at the top and you work your way down,” he said.
Taking the building apart, girder-by-girder, brick-by-brick, isn’t the only option, however. Zarider said other methods include collapsing the building in on itself using controlled explosive charges or toppling the building over and sorting through the scrap afterwards.
“You can cut things up and lower them off cranes, you can pull things over after you weaken them so they fall down or you can just implode it,” Zarider said. “There’s lots of different ways and it’s a function of the setting of the site, the proximity to residences, the ocean, all of those things.”
Zarider, who’s familiar with the Chula Vista site, said there are lots of advantages to imploding the structure at a site like the South Bay plant. Imploding is safer and the impact to the environment, while acute, is short-lived, he said.
However it’s dismantled, the valuable raw materials that once made up the building are then carefully sorted and shipped to scrap merchants and other buyers.
Then the cleanup of the site can begin. As I’ll be describing in my next story, cleaning up after the South Bay Power Plant and remediating any environmental damage that’s been caused over the years is the big unknown in Chula Vista. It could end up costing tens of millions of dollars, might take years and could be the subject of a fair few lawsuits.
I’ll be delving into that Pandora’s Box shortly.
Please contact Will Carless directly at email@example.com or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.