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City residents protest SOBE energy process

YOUNGSTOWN — Residents who oppose plans by SOBE Thermal Energy Systems Inc. to shred plastic and tires and convert them into gas to provide steam energy to downtown businesses say the process is unproven and an environmental hazard.

About 15 of them gathered Tuesday at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Burlington Street near a billboard opposing SOBE’s plan.

“We waited so long to have the air cleaned up because of the mills and now this comes along,” Carolyn A. Harris, secretary of the Love Your Neighbor block watch on the city’s North Side, said. “When the wind blows, there’s no telling where that air is going to go.”

“We have no problem with them burning natural gas to supply steam to the city, but nothing else,” Valeria Goncalves, Love Your Neighbor’s vice president, said. “It’s very scary they want to burn tires and plastics.”

David Ferro, SOBE’s CEO, couldn’t be reached Tuesday to comment.

But he’s explained before that his company wouldn’t be burning tires and plastics. Instead, those waste products would be converted into a synthetic gas and then that gas would be burned to create energy to heat and cool about 40 downtown businesses.

But those at Tuesday’s rally were unconvinced.

“It’s super-heating tires and plastics, which is worse than coal,” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a longtime Youngstown environmental activist. “We have enough air pollution already, and here’s another polluting industry coming into our community. It’s toxic air pollution.”

Silverio Caggiano, a retired Youngstown Fire Department battalion chief, said: “The process is dangerous. Putting this in the middle of Youngstown is not where you want this.”

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has to approve SOBE’s application for this process, which hasn’t been used before in the United States.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in November 2021 approved the sale of Youngstown Thermal Cooling LLC to SOBE, which is based in Dublin, Ohio, for $250,000. SOBE managed the North Avenue location for a few years before the sale was finalized.

Before that, Youngstown Thermal had numerous problems for years operating its cooling system leaving the handful of downtown businesses that used it without air conditioning during the summer months.

Youngstown Thermal was placed into receivership in 2017 after the PUCO was informed by the company’s former CEO that the business had financial struggles that could have caused an energy crisis downtown. Youngstown Thermal couldn’t ensure adequate service to its customers and was in danger of insolvency when the PUCO stepped in.

SOBE has since spent about $2 million on upgrades, Ferro has said.

Youngstown Thermal is the oldest district heating and cooling system in the country, having begun operations in 1895. It was designed to generate and distribute steam to heat downtown businesses using coal as its main source of fuel.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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