By EDYTHE JENSEN
Nov. 25, 2000 (The Arizona Republic)The prospect of steam-spewing smokestacks the size of high-rises has a well-organized group of Gilbert neighbors taking on one of the Valley’s biggest electrical utility.
The group’s protests against a Salt River Project power-plant expansion has turned a normal one-day utility committee hearing into a three-month process with no end in sight.
Armed with briefcases filled with utility research and cell phones that keep them in touch with employers, about a dozen upper-middle-class protesters are putting their professions on hold to sit around hotel banquet tables and query utility experts for hours.
They pose repetitive questions about noise, dust, public opinion surveys and alternate power sources before the Arizona Transmission Line and Power Plant Siting Committee. For some, hopes of victory are dimming.
“I think the best we can do is keep the residents’ interests in front of SRP,” protester Saretta Parrault said. “It’s like waving our arms at them, letting them know there’s people out here.”
Their effort marks the second time this year that consumers have locked horns with SRP over generating stations set among subdivisions.
The utility spent months negotiating with Tempe neighbors earlier this year about plans to expand a generating station at Kyrene and Elliot roads. Compromise – and a scaled-down expansion – came in April after well-organized neighbors lobbied municipal officials, circulated petitions and set up a Web site.
The Gilbert protesters are using the same tactics to stop SRP from converting the 300-megawatt Santan Generating Station at Val Vista Drive and Warner Road to an 825-megawatt station with three 150-foot stacks.
Expansion in Gilbert makes the most economic and engineering sense, SRP officials have said, because transmission lines are in place and the site is large enough to accommodate modern equipment.
The proceedings started in September at sporadic times and locations. A mid-January deadline hangs over their heads. By law, the committee must make its recommendation to the Arizona Corporation Commission by then.
Expansion protesters have also had to battle their neighbors and local businesses in Gilbert, the nation’s fastest-growing municipality. Exploding growth demands more power, and Gilbert’s economic future depends on it, SRP officials say.
“When are these people going to stop and think about their neighbors?” power-plant neighbor and expansion supporter Barbara Sheldon asked. “Gilbert and the entire Valley needs the electricity. Maybe their neighbor’s job depends on it.”
Sheldon, who served on a residents committee that negotiated landscaping, trails and plant design with SRP last December, said she was appalled by deceptive protest fliers that depicted a nuclear-powered generator and stacks spewing black smoke. The gas-powered plant will emit white steam, SRP spokesman George Sarkisian said.
Expansion opponent Michael Apergis said the protesters are worried about their property values and the environment.
“We did the best we could (on the fliers),” he said. “Granted, we were trying for a little effect there, too.”
A veteran of a Wal-Mart protest that stopped a superstore’s construction near his home, Apergis said the lengthy siting committee hearings are becoming a hardship for residents who must take time off work to attend. Although Apergis said the protesters are knowledgeable and are persistent, he isn’t holding much hope that the utility will abandon plans to expand in Gilbert.
“SRP is not Wal-Mart,” he said.
Parrault said her biggest worry is the location of the plant’s gas metering system fewer than 300 feet from her house and with the potential for an explosion.
“This is a typical NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon,” Sarkisian said of the resident protests. “SRP has a tremendous history in the Valley in the responsibility to serve everyone.
“These people are responsible to no one except their own self-interests.”
Reach the reporter at mailto:[email protected] (602) 444-7939.
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