Albion Monitor /News

Power Play by the Bay

by Diana Scott

Strenuous objections by neighborhood residents concerned about adverse local health impacts

Despite an outcry from a community already burdened with two power plants, the California Energy Commission last Monday unanimously approved a new 240-megawatt plant to be located in San Francisco's predominantly Black neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point.

The Commission's 5-0 decision ended an 18 month review and comment process in which the proposal by the San Francisco Energy Company (SFEC), an out- of-state partnership, to construct a new "cleaner" non-renewable fuel-burning facility, was deemed in compliance with myriad federal, state, and regional regulations. The ruling overrode strenuous objections by neighborhood residents that plant operation will have adverse local health impacts.

But the five-member state energy panel, all Wilson appointees, conditioned its approval on two unusual prerequisites: that the SFEC secure a lease for the 10-acre site on which the plant is to be built from the S.F. Port Commission, and that the energy company obtain a power purchase agreement from Pacific Gas & Electric. The lease must also be ratified by the S.F. Board of Supervisors, several of whom opposed the project during their electoral campaigns, as did Mayor Willie Brown, Jr.

SFEC, a partnership of the Virginia-based AES Corporation and Southern Natural Gas, an interstate pipeline company, won the bid for plant construction in a competition directed by the California Public Utilities Commission two years ago. The PUC wanted to economically replace or retrofit two aging PG&E power plants by the year 2001, when more stringent air quality standards will kick in. PG&E, however, retains control over the decision when and whether to retire or mothball its existing plants, a fact which hardly allays residents' fears over plans to build a third power plant in their neighborhood.

The battle now moves to the local political arena.

Supporters maintain there will be significant financial benefits, including up to ten permanent jobs

Opponents of the new "cogeneration" plant, which will produce both steam and electricity for sale, have argued that combustion byproducts -- including nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, organic compounds, and small particulates know as PM10's -- will exacerbate the already substantial health problems of local residents. They're also concerned about additional risks which toxic chemicals like ammonia, to be stored on site, pose to a community already overburdened with pollutants.

Bayview-Hunters Point is adjacent to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (one of two local Superfund clean-up sites) in southeast San Francisco, and also home to two older power plants as well as a sewage treatment plant. According to a recent Public Health Department toxic site inventory, it contains four times the number of toxic and hazardous waste generators, treatment and storage facilites, and leaky underground tanks as the rest of the city.

The energy company and its local supporters (including the S.F. Building and Construction Trades Council and the president of a local community development corporation) have maintained there will be significant financial benefits to the city and neighborhood from plant construction. They cite a good faith pledge of $13 million to be distributed locally over 30 years, and up to ten permanent jobs. SFEC argued to the state regulatory body's satisfaction that regional health risks posed are minimal.

According to Wendy Brummer-Kocks, spokeswoman for the Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice (SAEJ), a coalition of neighborhood residents, allies in other neigbhorhoods, and environmental groups including Greenpeace and The Sierra Club, "The decision is exactly what we expected all along. The [California Energy Commission] is not the venue to argue health or environmental justice issues."

SAEJ's next steps, she said, will be to try to kill plant construction at the Board of Supervisors and the Port Commission, and keep PG&E from negotiating a contract with SFEC.

Coinciding with the approval vote, Supervisor Angela Alioto, head of the Board of Supervisor's Committee on Public Health, Safety, and the Environment, introduced a resolution before the Board calling for an 18-month moratorium on development of any new industrial facility in Bayview-Hunters Point. This would give the Department of Health a chance to complete a community- based environmental and health assessment.

The area has the highest rate of asthma, bronchitis, and respiratory ailments in the city

Last summer, city health officials reported that the breast cancer rate for African American women under 50 in this neighborhood was double that of San Francisco, which has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the world. Cervical cancer occurred, too, at twice the rate for the city or Bay Area.

A key concern of air quality experts testifying before the Commission was that the plant will generate 280 tons of air contaminants per year, including 49 tons (300 lbs/day) of fine particulates which are absorbed deeply into the lungs. These particles have been shown to have severe health impact at levels below current regulatory standards.

The state does not require compliance with its own high standard for these emissions, and the EPA is expected to toughen the federal standard by next January, with enforcement to lag several years. Bayview-Hunters Point has the highest rate of asthma, bronchitis, and respiratory ailments in the city, according to hospital discharge rates for emergency rooms.

According to one air quality expert, the new plant will burn as much natural gas in three minutes as an average household uses in a year. It will produce as many PM10s in a day as 250 continuously active wooden-burning stoves, or 389 urban buses.

In a letter to the Commission last month, Dr. Sandra Hernandez, the City's Director of Health, expressed concern over the inadequacy of mitigation measures -- resodding of two nearby playgrounds to eliminate coarse particulate dust from other background sources -- to remedy the plant's fine PM10 emissions. "Mitigation of the large particulates found in the playground does not address the mitigation of combustion products from the power plant," she noted.

A hearing on the moratorium resolution is expected within two weeks.

Diana Scott is a San Francisco-based writer and architecture critic who specializes in environmental design, and will be covering community-based planning, urban history, and habitat reclamation for the Albion Monitor. She has written for San Francisco Bay Guardian, Examiner, and New York Times.

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Albion Monitor March 10, 1996 (

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