County rushes to respond to shorter comment deadline on transmission lines' project here

September 28, 2001|By LAURA MITCHEL, Staff Writer

County officials responded swiftly this week to a surprise ruling by the state that shortened the comment period on a draft environmental review for a project to run two new transmission lines from Mexico into Imperial County.

The proposed transmission lines are part of a plan by San Diego-based Sempra Energy Resources and InterGen Aztec Energy of Boston to import electrical power to California from their power plants along the border in Mexico, where air pollution standards are much lower than the U.S.

Imperial County has no power to stop construction of power plants in Mexico, even if it has a negative effect on the health and prosperity of its residents.

The Sept. 12 ruling by the state Public Utilities Commission to shorten the response period on the environmental report was prompted by a Sept. 4 request by Sempra's San Diego Gas & Electric Co.


"The reason for the shortened time frame on the report is because Gov. Gray Davis acted to expedite the permitting process during the power crisis," Sempra spokesman Michael Clark said.

The ruling set a deadline of Sept. 19 for protests and responses to SDG&E's application but the county did not receive notice of the ruling until the day before. According to county documents, the deadline to comment on the environmental report is Oct. 9.

"This is no different than the whole process that has taken place," county Supervisor Joe Maruca said.

"The North Baja Pipeline Project was dumped on us — slickered through the federal process," Maruca said referring to a proposed 215-mile natural gas pipeline planned to run from Arizona, through California to Tijuana.

"Sempra all of a sudden appeared like a two-headed snake, then InterGen," he said. "By the time they're here, it's too late to do anything. I don't think it was done by accident."

The county responded to the environmental report with two letters challenging the document on two fronts.

A letter written by county Air Pollution Control Officer Stephen Birdsall states the transmission lines are the result of the proposed power plants in Mexico and addresses the power plants' potential effect on air quality.

County Planning Director Jurg Heuberger wrote about the possible negative effects adding two 230-kilovolt transmission lines might have on the county.

The response letters were approved Tuesday as emergency items at the county Board of Supervisors meeting and a special session of the county Air Pollution Control Board. They were sent later that day to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Birdsall listed what he considered to be three problems with the report.

First, Imperial County is in a non-attainment area for PM10, which means the county is already in violation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for small airborne particles that pollute the air such as dust, dirt and soot.

"The PM10 standard is 150 micrograms per cubic meter," said Reyes Romero, an engineer with the county APCD. "But what we have found is a lot of the exceedences (over the PM10 standard) are due to pollution that travels into our county from Mexicali."

If the small particle level goes up, the county may be forced by the EPA to impose costly control measures on local businesses, Romero said.

The environmental report on the proposed power lines states the level of small airborne particles in Imperial County is the result of local sources.

In his response letter, Birdsall says that data from the APCD shows the county would meet air-quality standards if it weren't for emissions from Mexico.

Second, Birdsall's letter states earth-moving and heavy equipment for the building of the power facilities may temporarily bring more dust and emissions into Imperial County.

His letter goes on to state the APCD wants the report to include an estimate of daily and annual emissions that the construction and grading would bring into the county.

Third, the environmental report projects the effect on air quality only for the four turbines exporting power to the U.S. Birdsall's letter states district officials think a more realistic analysis should include emissions from all units of the power plants in Mexicali.

The letter also states that not all turbines will have the same air pollution controls. It notes that two of the four turbines at InterGen's La Rosita power complex will be completely uncontrolled.

"It's not true that two of our turbines will be completely uncontrolled," said Stephen Raab, vice president of health, safety and environment at InterGen.

The two turbines sending electricity to the U.S. will be built to a higher standard, Raab said, but the other two turbines will be built to exceed standards in Mexico. Raab added the equipment could be upgraded.

The APCD estimates Sempra's and InterGen's La Rosita turbines will produce 3,367 tons of nitrogen oxide per year. The report estimates if the power plants use emission reduction technology, nitrogen oxide levels could be reduced to 618 tons per year.

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