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If Gov. Davis has his way, California soon will have dozens of new power plants -- a lot of them in the wrong places, some of them unnecessary, and very, very few of them based on renewable energy

Wednesday, Jul 4 2001
Perched atop the peak it's named after, the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House is one of San Francisco's least-known architectural treasures. Designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan, the clubhouse first appears -- when approached from the south, via De Haro Street -- to be a large wooden cabin. The rustic feel dominates inside as well. In the barnlike community room used for plays and public hearings, however, there's a stunning dash of modernity: an enormous panoramic window with a view that stretches across the eastern edge of the San Francisco skyline, over both spans of the Bay Bridge, and clear into downtown Oakland and the hills beyond. You can also trace the city's eastern shore south, looking straight down into the bleacher seats at Pacific Bell Park and into the adjacent sailboat-laden marina at South Beach.

From this vantage point -- where Morgan may have been at her most prescient -- you can see only a slice of the burgeoning industrial wasteland to the right of the frame, a hodgepodge of perpetual construction, power and sewage plants, and heavy machinery that describes so much of the city's southeast.

Just hidden from view, for instance, is the stubby, red-brick smokestack attached to the Mirant Co.'s Illinois Street power plant, which happens to be the reason the community room of the clubhouse is packed on this evening early in June. More precisely, the crowd is gathered for a public hearing on Mirant's plan to more than double the size of the facility. The crowd -- a mix of residents from the Potrero Hill and Bayview- Hunters Point neighborhoods, some environmental activists, a handful of Mirant employees, several California Energy Commission staffers, and six police officers providing security for the meeting -- is not at ease. For two days, Energy Commission bureaucrats have been explaining a preliminary report that examines the impacts of the power plant expansion and that can generously be described as shoddy.

The mood grows particularly testy when environmentalists ask the bureaucrats why their discussion of cumulative environmental impacts did not include any reference to a large, dirty power plant that has long operated at Hunters Point, less than a mile from the Potrero power station.

"Well," says incredulous environmentalist Anne Simon, "where did Hunters Point go?"

"You're right," the bureaucrat in charge of the land-use evaluation answers. "We were mostly focused on new or proposed projects."

Simon, a senior attorney for the group Communities for a Better Environment, all but screams that this section of the report is meant, very specifically, to focus not on new projects, but on the cumulative impacts of all polluting activities in the area. Among other things, the report also ignored the polluting effects of a large sewage plant, Interstate 280 (which bisects the neighborhood), a gravel yard, an animal rendering plant, and the epically polluted former naval shipyard in Hunters Point.

After a 10-minute break, the residents' groups are still seething, and a new Energy Commission flak-catcher gets thrust into the fire. The bureaucrat, Amanda Stennick, is expected to deal with what has become known as "environmental justice," a top issue for residents of southeast San Francisco, especially those who live in Bayview-Hunters Point, the heavily black and Hispanic neighborhood that has borne the brunt of the city's pollution for years. In 1994, President Clinton signed a federal law prohibiting the disproportionate polluting of minority neighborhoods. There's no question that the minority neighborhoods in question had been disproportionately polluted long before there was talk of expanding the Potrero power plant.

The bureaucrats who preceded Stennick at this meeting -- who specialize in public health, land use, and water quality, among other things -- have deferred all questions about environmental justice to her. She first explains her methodology, which relies on a "screening tool" that will be applied to people living near the Potrero plant. "We want to take a look at the minority populations surrounding the project to see if there's a disproportionate impact on them," she says.

"Well," asks Mike Thomas, another environmentalist, "is there?"

"I don't analyze that," Stennick explains.

"Well who does?" Thomas asks.

"You know, public health, land use, water quality ...."

It's now clear to everyone in the room that a "screening tool" for examining environmental impacts on minorities has been developed -- but no environmental justice analysis has actually taken place. That realization is sufficient for another room-enveloping eruption.

Two Energy Commission higher-ups, both within a few feet of Stennick, turn ashen. Commission project manager Marc Pryor, a preacher's son with a minister's presence, tries to stop the shouting. "It seems that maybe we need to go back and look at environmental justice some more," he says.

This placates no one.

"How's this for a screening tool?" bellows Simon. "How about you go walk around those neighborhoods and open your damn eyes?"

Stennick, increasingly agitated, still alone in the spotlight, pleads to Pryor, "Marc, help me here? What do I do?"

When she gets no real answer, what she does is ... beg for mercy. "You all need to understand what a fractured process this is," she explains softly.

To hear Gov. Gray Davis tell it, California's energy crisis is, in large part, a crisis of supply. The state has about 42,000 megawatts of power capacity; it needs closer to 50,000.

Couched in those terms, it's a crisis Davis is solving.

The state -- which didn't build a single major power plant between 1995 and 1999 -- has approved 26 new plants since April 1999, with 16 more projects pending approval, and at least 10 more applications expected to be filed. By approving power plants at an unprecedented rate, the governor, clearly, is doing something about the electricity crisis, and he's taken great strides to let people know this. Every installment in the "Flex Your Power" conservation advertising campaign, which has been almost impossible to avoid on network television, closes with a reminder that "California is building 16 major new power plants."

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman


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