The city of Berkeley replaced a 28-year-old flare station in Cesar Chavez Park after complaints from the community that the equipment was emitting flames and polluting air in the surrounding area.
Between 1961 and 1983, the site operated as a solid waste landfill before it was repurposed as a park. A flare station was installed in 1988 in compliance with standards from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
At the time, the BAAQMD required flare stations at any site with more than 1 million tons of waste, thus, a station was installed at Cesar Chavez Park — which had 1.54 million tons of waste.
Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist in the campus’s department of environmental science, policy and management, said that when waste that contains carbon — such as wood, food scraps and plant materials— is buried in a landfill, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition and produces methane gas.
Flare stations then convert the greenhouse gas methane into primarily carbon dioxide, which is also a greenhouse gas, Stewart said, but is less harmful to the atmosphere.
“(Flare stations cause) a 25 to one reduction in greenhouse gas impacts,” Stewart said.
The combustion also emits nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, but these emissions are “relatively low,” said Sarah Zahedi, BAAQMD public information officer.
“Methane is one of the cleanest gases you can burn,” Zahedi said. “(It’s) pretty harmless.”
Over time, however, the landfill stopped emitting enough methane gas to fuel combustion and began malfunctioning, according to City Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
“The previous flare station was too big,” Worthington said. “There wasn’t enough capacity coming in, so it would sort of belch in fits and sparks.”
In an email to Worthington sent in February, Berkeley resident Clifford Fred said he saw flames coming from the equipment and expressed concern about the gases escaping into the air.
“With the poor air quality in West Berkeley … Cesar Chavez Park was the last nearby place we could find fresh air,” Fred said in the email.
The flare station replacement cost about $721,600 and was funded by a combination of city funds and grants from outside sources.
“We decided quite a while ago that we needed to replace this, but it took a while to get funding,” Worthington said.
Worthington said residents expressed concern the city may be forced to replace the station yet again as time goes on to adjust to changing methane emission rates.
According to Zahedi, however, flare stations are often retired once their emissions are no longer strong enough to fuel combustion. Landfills typically produce significant levels of methane for decades, but approximately 90 percent stop producing a consequential amount of the greenhouse gas after 100 years, Stewart said.