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Residents Fight Ammonia Plant Near Bakersfield

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Plans to build an ammonia manufacturing plant in an unincorporated area of Kern County head to court as citizens claim it was wrongfully exempted from environmental review.

Kern County Citizens for Responsible Development and five co-plaintiffs sued the county on Sept. 29 in Superior Court, asking that construction be enjoined until the county conducts the studies required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

The project, proposed by Grannus LLC, combines an ammonia manufacturing plant and an 11 megawatt electrical generation plant on a 46-acre site in the South Kern Industrial Center a few miles southwest of Bakersfield, the county seat. It will also house a laboratory, three wells, water treatment and discharge buildings, an ammonia storage tank, and a 6-mile natural gas pipeline.

Construction will take 18 to 26 months. Once complete, the plant will produce around 250 tons of anhydrous ammonia per day.

Ammonia is a clear, toxic, flammable substance widely used in manufacturing, refrigeration, and as fertilizer. It enters the body primarily through inhalation, and less commonly through skin and eye contact or through contaminated food and water. Exposure can cause lung and tissue damage and is fatal in high concentrations.

Kern County, population 882,176, is at the southern end of California's San Joaquin Valley. Known for its petroleum extraction and agriculture industries, it is also a hub for energy production facilities, including wind turbine power and solar power.

Kern has the second-worst air quality in the country. Though ringed on several sides by mountain ranges, the mountains are usually invisible or barely perceivable beneath a thick blanket of smog and haze.

The plaintiffs claim the ammonia plant will exacerbate this already poor air quality and threaten several endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox and the Tipton kangaroo rat.

Additional points of concern include the project's proximity to the San Andreas and White Wolf faults (15 miles and 14 miles, respectively) and its location within FEMA-designated flood zone A, "which may cause hazards to human life and property," the complaint states.

Despite these known dangers, the county approved Grannus's site plan though the application did not include any completed forms and without holding a public hearing on the matter, according to the complaint.

Nor did the county hold a public hearing on its decision to deem the project exempt from CEQA guidelines. It justified this decision by saying that "oil and gas conformity reviews are ministerial" under Kern zoning ordinances, but the plaintiffs claim those reviews are not applicable to the ammonia project.

Under the South Kern Industrial Center specific plan, several reports and studies must be submitted before a project can be approved, including comprehensive plans for utilities and infrastructure; disposal of onsite drainage water; and plans for energy conservation and waste water recycling.

Since the project lacks these mandatory reports, the plaintiffs say, the county's approval is an arbitrary and capricious abuse of discretion.

The Board of Supervisors did not return emailed requests for comment.

The plaintiffs ask the court to set aside the county's approval of the project, notice of exemption, and all other permits and approvals until the county prepares and circulates an environmental impact report that complies with CEQA.

They also want an injunction preventing any work from being done on the project until it complies with the South Kern Industrial Center specific plan and state environmental law.

They are represented by Linda Sobczynski with Adams, Broadwell, Joseph & Cardozo of Sacramento.

Co-plaintiffs are California Unions for Reliable Energy and three people.

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