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Lawsuit filed over power line permits

March 20, 2002|STAFF REPORT

OAKLAND — Environmentalist groups Earthjustice and Wild Earth Advocates filed a lawsuit against the federal government Tuesday challenging permits granted to two companies planning to build electrical transmission lines from Mexicali into the Imperial Valley.

The groups are representing San Diego's Border Power Plant Working Group.

The lines are being built to bring power from two power plants being built near Mount Signal.

"Approving transmission lines for power plants under construction in Mexicali, without ensuring that these plants are built to minimize air and water-quality impacts, will cause unnecessary harm to local U.S. and Mexican communities," said Bill Powers of the Border Power Plant Working Group, the plaintiff in the case.

The lawsuit seeks to require environmental impact statements prior to the issuance of federal permits needed for the transmission lines to cross international boundaries.

Powers and his group contend operation of the plants would significantly degrade local air and water quality and likely would harm public health and the environment.

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One of the stated goals of the Bush presidential administration's energy plan is "to expand and accelerate cross-border energy investment, oil and gas pipelines, and electricity grid connections by streamlining and expediting permitting procedures with Mexico and Canada."

"Now we see that what the administration meant by expediting power plant construction was actually a strategy to avoid U.S. laws that mandate environmental review and public participation," said Martin Wagner, attorney for Earthjustice.

"Exporting our pollution into this region of Mexico is disturbingly cynical considering the president's attendance at the U.N. meeting on international poverty in Mexico this week," he added.

Operation of the plants would generate substantial air pollution that would cause further deterioration of air quality in California's Salton Sea Air Basin, a region that is already unable to comply with the air quality requirements of the Clean Air Act.

The border power plants would discharge highly saline wastewater into the New River, which flows north across the border and discharges into the Salton Sea.

Both these water bodies already fail to meet the water quality standards of the Clean Water Act and the principal problem associated with the Salton Sea is high salinity.

Operation of the border power plants would threaten the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge, a key habitat for birds in the Imperial Valley, according to the environmental groups.

Much of the air and water pollution will result from the cooling systems the plants will use. Although Mexico is a world leader in the use of cleaner "dry" cooling systems, the U.S. developers of the plants have proposed to use "wet" cooling systems that emit much more particulate matter into the air and greater concentrations of contaminants into the water, according to Powers.

If the same power plants were constructed in Imperial County they would be required to use dry cooling to eliminate particulate emissions.

"The Department of Energy did an environmental assessment before issuing the permits to build the transmission lines but their study ignored the impacts of the power plants even after the EPA advised them to include such consideration," said Julia Olson, an attorney with Wild Earth Advocates.

"Not surprisingly, DOE concluded that the plants would have no significant environmental impact and granted the permits," she added.

The suit challenges the permits and associated environmental assessment for the transmission lines. It also challenges the DOE's failure to prepare an EIS and failure to evaluate the combined environmental impacts from the transmission lines, the pipeline being constructed to provide fuel to the plants and the operation of the plants themselves.

On or before April 1, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will decide whether to reconsider its Jan. 16 approval of the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Imperial County has sued the California State Lands Commission for its approval of the pipeline and transmission lines.

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