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SOBE energy palans aired

YOUNGSTOWN — Kathy Crowe heard the pitch regarding a proposed draft air permit-to-install and operate for which SOBE Thermal Energy Systems LLC has applied, but the burning question on her mind is how the lives of many area residents might be impacted if it’s approved.

“I don’t want to be collateral damage, do you?” Crowe, of McDonald, said.

She was among the more than 100 elected officials, residents, city officials and others who attended an information session and public hearing Thursday at the Eugenia Atkinson Recreational Center, 903 Otis St., to glean more detailed information about the permit and, if granted, the possible ramifications.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hosted the nearly three-hour session to receive feedback from those in attendance, most of whom were against SOBE’s plan to use tire-derived chips for converting into gas.

The material would be used to provide steam energy to customers from its plant at 205 North Ave., downtown, the site of the former Youngstown Thermal plant.

Many attendees who spoke expressed concerns about possible air pollution and health risks from the process.

Crowe, who hopes the Ohio EPA will reject the permit request, also questioned SOBE’s decision to conduct its operations in the shadow of the downtown corridor, saying that millions of dollars have been spent revitalizing the area that’s close to several parks as well as Youngstown State University, along with many residences and businesses. In addition, the efficacy of the process SOBE plans to implement remains unproven, she said.

The audience also was made up of a few dozen who support SOBE’s plan, including David Ferro, the Dublin, Ohio-based company’s chief executive officer.

The initial permit application was received Sept. 12, 2022, but an updated version was received in March. Early last month, the draft permit was issued.

Conducting the main presentation was Erik Bewley, who works in the Ohio EPA’s division of air pollution control.

Bewley explained that a thermolyzer will use the tire chips to produce synthetic gas on site, and that natural gas will be supplied via pipeline from a separate facility. A thermolyzer is a nonincineration technology in which all hydrocarbon waste materials are recycled into synthetic gas.

The process entails pyrolysis, a type of gasification in which organic material such as biomass is heated with little or no oxygen, Bewley said. He noted that SOBE is proposing to use 88 tons of tire-derived chips per day to produce synthetic gas.

In addition, SOBE is planning to add two boilers, each of which would operate at 55 million British thermal units, to burn both types of gas. The proposal also says that the boilers would combust natural or synthetic gas only, with minimum temperature restrictions on them, from the thermolyzer, he explained. Bewley added that the process also would entail testing for a variety of metals once every three months.

Bewley mentioned that, if the facility is installed, his agency would perform compliance monitoring via periodic announced and unannounced inspections, reviews of submitted reports and investigations of citizen complaints.

Those who wish to file a complaint would be asked to call the Ohio EPA’s Northeast District office at 330-963-1200, or do so online by going to https://epa.ohio.gov/helpcenter/contact-us/submit-a-complaint.

About midway through Bewley’s presentation, one man became increasingly angry because of some of the technical language being used to explain the process, and a police officer eventually escorted him from the session.

During the question-and-answer portion, several people brought up the recent large industrial fire at a plastics manufacturing plant near Richmond, Ind., that released a variety of toxins in the air. Those within a half-mile of the plant were asked to evacuate.

Nevertheless, SOBE’s proposal will not contribute to major harmful toxins and particulates being released, they were told.

Others’ concerns centered on how, given the chemical composition of most tires, bits of the rubber can be burned cleanly, what will be done to investigate complaints and how a fire department the size of Youngstown’s would be equipped to respond in the event of a large fire or explosion at the plant.

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