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Power plants concentrated in east Contra Costa


CONTRA COSTA, Oct. 3, 2000 (The San Francisco Chronicle)—Electricity-starved California should thank the residents of east Contra Costa for doing its dirty work. State energy officials say no other urbanized part of the state has a greater concentration of power plants in such a small area.

Unlike other parts of California, there is little community opposition to building plants there. And soon, even that blip of protest may not matter. The region is close to maxing out on its power-transmitting capacity, after three in the construction or approval pipeline are completed.

“We haven’t done any studies yet but my feeling is that the region is pretty close to its transmission limits now,” said Peter Mackin, a planner with the Independent System Operator, the nonprofit agency which controls much of California’s power grid.

Without building or reconfiguring existing transmission lines, there won’t be enough pathways to distribute power out of the region, no matter how many plants are built.

Still, environmental activists worry about the pollution impacts of the oncoming plants since east Contra Costa is already home to plants that supply a quarter of the Bay Area’s power needs.

For years, when other more politically and economically powerful regions have said, “Don’t put a plant here,” rejected power plant heads have often turned toward the eastern edge of Contra Costa. Two plants have been approved there in the past year, and a third is winding through the process.

With Gov. Gray Davis asking the California Energy Commission to fast-track applications for new plants to feed a juice-thirsty state, energy providers are searching for the type of welcome mat that east Contra Costa is rolling out: the right zoning for industry, local political support, and minimal resistance from neighbors. The expectation is that similar hubs like Kern County — with five plants in the approval pipeline — may find more power suitors standing at the door with a bouquet.

“You’ll probably see a physical expansion of older plants as well as some new construction,” said Matthew Foskett of the Northern California Power Agency. The agency builds plants, sells power and lobbies for its 21 members, most of whom are municipal utilities. “But the good news is that those new plants will be a lot cleaner.”


What could slow plant development, said Jan Smutney-Jones, Independent System Operator board of governors chair, is if a region exceeds its air quality limits or maxes out on the amount of energy it can transmit. And that time is rapidly approaching in Contra Costa.

At the same time, opponents of these newly transforming bedroom communities are speaking out against the industrial plants that have defined the region and supported families for decades.

“Enough is enough. We’ve had more than our fair share here,” said Paulette Lagana, who heads one of the region’s few environmental watchdog groups. “People here are tired of all the pollution.”

Ten power plants line Highway 4, in communities from Bay Point to Antioch, and an application for No. 11 is inching through the approval process with little opposition. While south San Jose neighborhoods have San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and corporate giants like Cisco joining them in opposing a proposed plant in the Coyote Valley, this congested region of east Contra Costa has raised barely a whimper over the years — and attracted few heavy hitters to bolster their ranks.

Their communal silence is all the more curious given that many neighbors and community activists have long complained that the region’s air is dirtier than its neighbors in other parts of the East Bay.

But quantifying the plant’s potential pollution impact — or that of any industry in east Contra Costa — is hard to prove. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District records, Pittsburg’s ozone level hasn’t exceeded federal limits since 1993. Livermore, which has little industry, recorded a Bay Area-high of three ozone- heavy days last year.


While activists say this high concentration of plants near low-income and minority neighborhoods represents a classic case of environmental injustice, the energy commission has never rejected an application based on environmental justice concerns — including two it has licensed in east Contra Costa over the past year.

“We would not license a plant if there were unmitigable health concerns,” said Bob Haussler, an environmental protection specialist with the California Energy Commission.

But just trying to define “environmental justice” is proving too much for two bodies that could provide protection for east Contra Costa.

Contra Costa County’s Hazardous Materials Commission has been trying to agree on an environmental justice policy for two years.

“Without one,” said chair Leslie Stewart, “a company has an easier time just coming in here and doing whatever they want.”

This week, a coalition of environmental groups blasted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for being unresponsive to environmental justice issues.

Given all that, activists say it’s no wonder that many east Contra Costa feel powerless to oppose new facilities. Few show up for public meetings on plant openings, and environmental activists have trouble generating any kind of outrage.

“Most of the people living around the plants are poor working- class people who don’t have the time to commit to protesting them,” said Mike Boyd, president of Californians for Renewable Energy. The environmental watchdog of Sunnyvale has opposed power plants in both the South Bay and east Contra Costa.

“Unfortunately,” Boyd said, “the people who are hurt most are the children, who have to breathe in the pollution while their parents drive out of the region to work.”


But one Pittsburg neighborhood is raising its voice. Last August, the energy commission approved Enron of Houston’s application to build a 500-megawatt electric power plant in Pittsburg, close to the Central Addition neighborhood. Two weeks before the commission approved the plant, Enron sold it to Calpine Corp. of San Jose.

Earlier this summer, Calpine asked the commission if it could increase the size of a duct burner at its Los Medanos Energy Center. Calpine contends the change would raise the plant’s generating capacity to 565 megawatts. Energy officials say the increase could raise the amount of pollution emissions by an undetermined amount.

Any request for an increase over 50 megawatts faces a state review, which could take up to a year. But in a letter to the commission, Calpine contends Los Medanos was licensed for 546 megawatt capacity — meaning the upgrade could get a green light within four months.

Energy commission experts said generating capacity figures aren’t precise, varying with weather conditions and other factors.

“We’re more interested in how the change would affect air emissions,” said Chuck Najarian, the commission’s power plant compliance program manager.

The commission is expected to return its findings this fall after a public workshop in Pittsburg.

Still, the proposed change infuriated neighbors in Pittsburg’s Central Addition, a community of redwood-framed cottages shaded by 60-year-old sycamore trees, the closest of which stands 320 yards from Los Medanos.

Months of negotiations with Enron and city officials over the original application won the neighborhood a new park and a large soundwall to help mute noise. In exchange, the plant received the influential Central Addition neighborhood’s blessing.

“But we gave our endorsement to the plant based on assurances that the plant would be that (500 megawatt) size,” said Central Addition neighbor Allen Tatomer. “This is a much bigger plant.”

Still, many residents seem resigned to having plants in their midst. And that resignation has made it hard for activists to raise money.

Over the past year, Boyd’s nonprofit has raised $20,000 to fight Calpine’s proposed Metcalf Energy Center in south San Jose. Over roughly the same period, Boyd has scared up only $500 from a single east Contra Costa donor — Pittsburg School District Trustee Jim McDonald.

Boyd is experiencing the same frustration in connecting with the community that other activists have felt. Even Communities for a Better Environment, which has successfully organized similar neighborhoods in west Contra Costa, hasn’t been able to find a vein of outrage to tap into, said the group’s Denny Larson.


Like many elected officials and community activists, school trustee McDonald ticks off reasons for the silence.

Longtime residents are comfortable with industry, and the land is zoned for it. Ever since the turn of the century, industry has meant jobs for their families. Yet, even as part of the cities have been transformed into bedroom communities, Pittsburg and Antioch have struggled to attract nonindustrial employers.

Industry is so central to the region that Pittsburg formed a municipal utility four years ago, the Pittsburg Power Company.

Part of the reason for forming a utility, said former Pittsburg City Manager Jeff Kolin, was to retain the area’s industrial neighbors — and attract new light industry — by connecting them to cheaper power.

In April, Pittsburg cut a deal to construct a high-powered transmission line across town in exchange for $27 million in payments to the city over 25 years. Last year, the city received $15.6 million in cash plus $5 million in other in public infrastructure improvements from the sale of a power plant it jointly owned with Enron.

Plus, the two companies developing the Delta Energy Center, have set up a $1 million community grant program, which has already doled out $152,300 to local organizations. Two members of the grant board – – Pittsburg Councilman Federal Glover and Antioch Mayor Mary Rocha — are opposing each other this fall to represent east Contra Costa on the county Board of Supervisors.

Yet it’s doubtful that Pittsburg residents will see cheaper power bills just because their city is a utility company. Over the years, city officials have looked into several arrangements that could cut residential power bills, said city attorney Michael Woods, but none have made financial sense. “We’re continuing to explore that,” Woods said.

Regardless, said the Central Addition’s Tatomer, his neighborhood will still be in the shadow of a power plant. “We feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick.”

© 2000 The San Francisco Chronicle via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.