Old flare pipe being removed at Cesar Chavez Park. Photo: Martin Nicolaus
Old flare tower being removed at Cesar Chavez Park. Photo: Martin Nicolaus
Old flare tower being removed at Cesar Chavez Park. Photo: Martin Nicolaus

By Martin Nicolaus

The old flare station at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park, built amid controversy in 1989, is gone. A crew from Innovative Construction Solutions (ICS), aided by Hatton Crane Service, under the watchful eyes of Taylor Lancelot of the City of Berkeley and a representative from SCS Engineers, who built the system originally, took down the rusty leaning tower in a seven-hour session on Tuesday, Aug. 9, under bright skies with a modest westerly breeze.

Cesar Chavez Park is a green cover over what was, until 1983, the Berkeley city dump. Compostable refuse generates methane and other landfill gases. In the 1980s, a group of scientists and environmentalists argued that a flare station was unnecessary at this site. Measurements showed that surface emissions of methane were below levels of concern, probably due to the action of soil bacteria that “eat” methane. This inexpensive natural bioremediation process was sufficient, they argued.

But the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) brushed aside the measurements, branded bioremediation as “experimental,” and threatened the city with heavy fines unless it installed a mechanical gas extraction and flare system. The city complied.

More than 40 gas extraction wells lie buried at various points in the park, as well as on the grounds of the Hilton Hotel, which is also built on refuse fill. More than 16,000 feet of underground pipes channel the gas from the extraction wells to the flare station. The station consists of a condenser, which removes moisture, a pair of blowers that ram the gas into a high-temperature burner, and, above the burner, the stack, whose main function is to conceal the flame and act as stovepipe to channel the exhaust gas up above nose level.

Flare stations are basically incinerators that convert methane, a highly harmful greenhouse gas, into carbon dioxide, also a greenhouse gas but much less harmful to the atmosphere than methane.

YouTube video

Despite its rusty exterior and a certain ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ quality, the 1989 flare station was likely good, assuming regular maintenance, for another decade or two of service. It was retired not because it was breaking down, but because its design required a certain minimum gas flow to drive it, and the park just isn’t producing that much gas any longer. For the past few years the flare station has had to run at about half time, and the marginal flow has led to coughing and spitting fits (documented here), like an engine short on fuel.

The new flare station, which is now operational, is more modern, more efficient and a lot prettier to look at, but its main qualification for the job is that it’s much smaller and can run on less gas.

For several years now, gas levels at Cesar Chavez Park have hovered just above the regulatory threshold where BAAQMD might allow it to operate without a flare station. The case for bioremediation is certainly much stronger today than it was in 1989. But bioremediation is still not in the BAAQMD vocabulary.

And so the flare station is dead, but long live the new flare station. It cost $721,000 to install and will cost an additional $150,000 a year to maintain, for as long as it remains operational.

Two questions remain: how long will there be enough gas to drive the new device? And how long before gas levels drop below BAAQMD’s benchmark?

A version of this article was first published on Martin Nicolaus’ Viva Cesar Chavez Park blog where you will find more photos and video.

A love affair with Cesar Chavez Park spawns website, book (02.04.2015)

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