Messy Footprint

Arcata biodiesel producer struggles for survival after last month's oil spill



To hear Footprint Recycling owner and founder Andy Cooper tell it, last month's oil spill at the company's biodiesel refinement plant has inflicted more damage on his business than on the environment. The City of Arcata issued a cease and desist order, effectively halting production at the West End Road facility, after a fuel storage tank overflowed the night of Thursday, Jan. 14. The spill released as much as 1,000 gallons of processed vegetable oil and wash water into the building and surrounding grounds, including an unnamed tributary to the north fork of Janes Creek. Cooper says that the environmental impact of the spill is minimal, while the cease and desist order threatens the very existence of his eco-friendly business.

By the time you read this, the Arcata City Council likely will have reached a decision about how to help the company. Responding to public support for Footprint at last week's regularly scheduled meeting, the council called for a special hearing Wednesday morning to consider the issue. Cooper told the Journal Tuesday that if the company is not allowed to produce and sell biodiesel fuel soon, the point will become moot. "They [the council] have to lift the cease and desist order," he said, "because if they don't there won't be any Footprint Recycling to fix."

The spill was apparently caused by an equipment malfunction at the refinement plant, where used restaurant grease gets converted into biodiesel. Overnight, a sprinkler wash system used to clean the fuel failed to shut off automatically as designed, instead pumping water into the tank throughout the night and displacing the grease inside. The water and oil mixture then breached a secondary containment wall and flowed out of the building. An employee discovered the spill the following morning when, according to a report in the Arcata Eye, "the grease flowed over his shoes and out the door." Roughly 300 gallons escaped the building, Cooper said, some of it settling in surrounding waterways.

Environmental Services Director Mark Andre and Community Development Director Larry Oetker received a call about 9:30 Friday morning from a city employee who'd seen workers at Footprint cleaning up the spill. According to a staff report, the spill had not yet been reported to the appropriate regulatory agencies as required by law. The U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Fish and Game dispatched officials to make sure the spill didn't reach Janes Creek. Cooper, his employees and a group of volunteers spent all day and much of the following weekend cleaning up the mess, using a vacuum pump, booms and absorbent materials to contain the grease. By all accounts, their cleanup effort was swift and effective, but the damage had been done.

A small amount of grease flowed into what Cooper describes as a ditch filled with standing water, but what the Department of Fish and Game considers a Janes Creek tributary. It was Cooper's understanding that Fish and Game wouldn't assume jurisdiction unless the spill reached Janes Creek. "It never reached Janes Creek," he said emphatically. "It never breached our containment. It never left our parcel."

Nevertheless, Fish and Game submitted charges to the District Attorney's Office, alleging that Footprint had violated department code 5650, which prohibits the release into state waters of any materials that are harmful to fish, birds or plants. Reached by phone Tuesday, Game Warden Josh Zulliger sternly disagreed with Cooper's assessment. The spill, he said, came into contact with state water inhabited by aquatic life and was thus a criminal matter. "I'm not gonna get in a war of words," Zulliger said. "If he wants to dispute that he can fight it in court."

Exacerbating Footprint's troubles, city inspectors found several building code violations at the facility. The company has been dutifully addressing those violations, Cooper said, but he added that the financial burden of non-operation is rapidly crippling the business. Without the ability to process the vegetable oil and sell it as biofuel, they've been forced to sell it as oil to other biodiesel businesses in the area at a fraction of the usual price. Plus, Cooper said, they're being asked to navigate complex, time-intensive permitting and repair procedures at the worst possible time of year: Fourth quarter taxes are due, as are insurance premiums and payroll.

At last week's City Council meeting, councilmembers Susan Ornelas and Michael Winkler voiced support for the business, calling attention to its social and environmental benefits to the city. Created as Cooper's senior thesis project on his way to earning a Master's in Environmental Systems Engineering at HSU, Footprint Recycling morphed into a commercial endeavor in 2004 and has since become an exemplar -- nominally, at least -- of Arcata's eco-friendly character. Cooper enumerated the business' assets: It's employee-owned, beneficial to the environment, it saves restaurants money, stimulates the local economy and removes 500,000 pounds of material from the waste stream every year, which in turn allows the city to achieve federal waste management and recycling goals. In short, Cooper and his supporters believe that by constraining the business' operations, regulators are missing the larger picture. "We have no problem addressing the concerns they've raised," Cooper said. "But we have to be able to make and sell fuel along the way or we are done, period."

On Tuesday, city staff authorized City Council to execute a business loan to Footprint of up to $20,000 at three percent interest. "This was a gesture to say we absolutely have to get these items cleaned up, and we know it will cost a lot of money," Oetker explained. The loan offer reflects both the seriousness of the spill and the importance of biodiesel to many community members, he added.

Cooper said he's reluctant to go into debt, though that may be the company's only way out. Andre said Tuesday that despite the incident, the city should try to help the company survive. "That's what everybody wants," he said. "Nobody wants them to go bankrupt while they're trying to deal with it."

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