This inoperable cogeneration plant, located just south of Lassen Community College, is in the beginnings of a possible second life. Photo by Jake Hibbitts

Possible second chance for cogen plant location

Take a drive north toward Lassen Community College on Highway 139 — or even on Skyline Road from Johnstonville Road — and you’ll see a tall brown and tan building just south of the campus soccer field. It’s been there since the 80s. The building in question is the college’s former co-generation plant, an obvious and abandoned eyesore often used for firefighter training.

At the December meeting of LCC’s board of trustees, Lassen College Foundation emeritus member Richard St. Peter spoke on the subject of the college potentially transferring the idle plant to the foundation.

While interested, the board decided to postpone the transfer to the foundation and bring back the topic at one of the board’s two January meetings. Many of the members had several questions for St. Peter and asked for him to bring back a presentation of the potential usage. St. Peter encouraged the board to visit the inoperable cogeneration plant in the meantime.

The week before the meeting, the foundation’s board voted to seek ownership of the cogeneration plant from LCC. He also let the trustees know, if at any point in the process they wished to revoke granting the plant’s property to the foundation, they could.

St. Peter explained the foundation was completely controlled by the college itself to prevent a “rogue” foundation.

He hoped the board would come to a decision rather than getting into “the paralysis of analysis.”

According to St. Peter, there were many reasons the foundation sought to obtain the inoperable cogeneration plant.

The foundation sought to convert “a wasting property with a net-cost into a revenue-producing asset.” The foundation wants to “turn a historical disappointment into a creative future” through the foundation, as well as “provide a venue for the community to reconnect with the college.”

He told the board the foundation had surveyed the community to come up with some potential uses for the space the cogeneration currently occupies.

Potential options ranged from a “sports field house” where there would be locker rooms and showers for a potential football team, to an indoor soccer, baseball or wrestling practice location — especially with LCC having women’s wrestling. There were suggestions to have in indoor shooting range — supportive of the college’s gunsmithing program.

Other solutions brought up were to sell the property and use the cash for something else, or convert it into a storage facility or an indoor fishery.

“Doug Houston had (entertained) the idea of an equestrian center,” said St. Peter.

However, St. Peter told the board in his opinion, the highest use and profitability would be a performing arts center.

The facilty could be used for dance, theater or chorus performances, in addition to class reunions, lectures or concerts.

St. Peter’s favorite suggestion was to convert it into a business Incubator like WeWorks.

He explained to the board, “In the big cities they have these buildings that we’ve been going to and they have copy machines, business services. And then they get a business incubator that has the business staff and college consult with the people that are organizing the business and hopefully they migrate out,” and into the buildings on Main Street.

Trustee Lou Hamilton sought to table the item so a presentation could be brought back to the board for further discussion when everyone could share ideas in further detail.

Trustees Kim Dieter, Alan Siemer and Sophia Wages all indicated they had been to the plant after Hamilton posed the question. Hamilton then suggested that anyone who was planning on visiting the site wear a hardhat.

St. Peter — addressing complications with insurance — suggested picking small companies. “I’m always concerned about insurance, because when they sue somebody, they go after people that they can get something out of. So risk management has always been under my responsibility,” said St. Peter.                  He mentioned while he has taken three tours of the facility, he hasn’t been offered a hardhat, but had several in his truck in case the board took interest.

He also mentioned that the college currently bears the cost of maintaining the facility and transferring it to the foundation would lift that burden.

Trustee Shaun Giese asked the board’s counsel if an MOU could be drafted to assure the liability would be on the foundation rather than the college and board. Counsel responded that while it was possible, he wasn’t prepared to give a complete answer on the issue at the moment.


History of the cogeneration plant

According to information available in the Respondents’ Brief in the 1993 case of Lassen Community College District and Susanville Resources Inc v. Lassen County Air Pollution Control District, Lassen County Air Pollution Control District, during the early 1980s this building was constructed to be California’s first “refuse-fueled resource recovery cogeneration and training facility,” built right here in Susanville.

The cogeneration plant was originally designed to burn medical waste at an idle trash incinerator at the edge of town.

It was built in an attempt to cut the college’s electricity bill and train students for the waste-to-energy industry. It was used by the college as a training facility for California’s first college curriculum in alternative energy sources.

By formal action in August 1982, Lassen County designated the college as the exclusive recipient of all the county’s combustible municipal solid waste.

In the fall of 1984, the college successfully completed the construction and began operation of the facility, fueled by garbage, municipal solid waste (which at the time included medical waste), wood, animal carcasses and other types of non-hazardous combustible waste.

However, according to a 1991 Los Angeles Times report, the plant, in addition to finishing late in its construction, produced toxic ash for some time. Then the plant’s turbine broke.

Coupled with the lack of securing a reliable supply of trash (because Lassen County didn’t remotely generate enough garbage to keep the plant going), the college landed in Chapter 9 bankruptcy and was burdened with legal fees of around $250,000 a year.

In an effort to partially repay debt holders and get itself out of bankruptcy, the college reached a complicated agreement with Susanville Resources Incorporated, a leading disposer of medical waste refuse at the time.

SRI planned to burn 80 tons of medical waste at the facility daily. They paid the college a non-refundable $1 million for the privilege and would pay another $600,000 if the project got going.

However, SRI received mass amounts of local opposition. Residents challenged the plant’s safety, location and proposed a new operator.

The community quickly found out that Raymond Adams, the man behind the proposal, was an ex-convict whose companies within the country had sometimes run afoul of environmental regulations.

In the same 1991 Los Angeles Times report, from 1965 to 1970 Adams was imprisoned in Australia on charges arising from a huge business bankruptcy. Later voters in the Susanville community voted down an advisory referendum, disapproving the incinerator by a margin of 4 to 1.

Yet, the SRI spokesperson at the time, Alan Siemer (who is now one of the college’s trustees) was quoted in the ‘91 Times article at the time as saying, “The vote doesn’t mean diddly.”

In fact, 36 of the 39 incinerators proposed in California from 1986 through 1989 were defeated. Susanville’s still stands mostly abandoned as of today.