Hayward at Odds Over Proposed Plant

Air quality district is expected to approve operations of new power plant, but some aren't happy about that.

In early 2001, the Calpine Corporation made plans for a 600-megawatt
natural gas power plant on Hayward’s Russell City shoreline. When the
company approached the Hayward City Council, the council unanimously
approved a contract to push forward the proposed Russell City Energy
Center. The speed of its decision was unsurprising given that the state
was in the midst of its 2001 energy crisis. And Calpine, a huge energy
company with a stake in 37 major geothermal and gas-fired power plants
in California, also was offering millions of dollars to the City of
Hayward in one-time and recurring property taxes, and an extra $21
million in charitable contributions.

Calpine boasted that its Russell City Energy Center would be one of
the greenest and most efficient plants of its kind. And in 2001,
natural gas still had the reputation of being the clean alternative to
coal-fired plants, and the proposed plant was based on some of the
greenest technology in the industry. The California Energy Commission
gave Calpine a green light in 2002 and again in 2007, when the energy
company amended its permit to move the construction site 1,300 feet
northwest of the original spot. Yet “greenest” is a relative term, and
today many residents of Hayward and students and staff of nearby Chabot
Community College are furious, arguing that the devastating effects of
more pollution in their community would outweigh any benefits of
inviting Calpine to the neighborhood.

At first glance, Hayward’s “Russell City” is an unincorporated
enclave of factories. It’s not really on anyone’s weekend getaway
radar, unless you’re driving a fuel delivery truck overtime. But about
a mile and a half away from the industrial bustle, people live and work
in a patchwork suburbia that fits tract homes from sixty years ago
together with apartment complexes from the Nineties. A few blocks from
the proposed site, you can hear kids shout at Chabot Community
College’s child care center, or see middle school students playing
basketball at recess. The thin seam between residence and industry has
been a fact of life for many Hayward residents, although the last ten
years have called into question what residents will and will not accept
in their backyard.

Opponents worry about the plant’s possible health effects on nearby
residents, and also about the safety of the plant’s proposed proximity
to the Hayward Executive Airport. Anthony Iton, former director of the
Alameda County Public Health Department, wrote two open letters to the
Bay Area Air Quality Management District in 2009, both stating that the
department had concerns about the plant’s potential to “adversely
impact the health of Alameda County residents — particularly
those living, working, and studying in Hayward — those whom I
have a mandate to protect.” Susan Sperling, an anthropology instructor
at Chabot College, who has worked with a taskforce of students,
faculty, and staff who have been organizing in opposition to the plant,
said that her students and peers were afraid of the toxins in an area
with an already high rate of asthma and cancer.

Other opponents include expected players such as Communities for a
Better Environment, EarthJustice, and Californians for Renewable
Energy, but also some unexpected organizations, including the
California Pilots Association, which worries that smoke plumes from the
power plant might waft into the aircraft that fly into Hayward’s
airport and could disrupt the readings of the aircraft’s instruments,
or even render a pilot unconscious.

Calpine appears to be just one permit away from actually starting
construction. Only the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has yet
to approve the power plant, and both Calpine and its opponents expect
that it will. The agency opened a public comment period in September
and as been reviewing and preparing to respond to all 210 comments that
it received. And while there is no date by which the agency is legally
required to issue a permit, Calpine must begin construction in Russell
City by September 2010 or its state permit will expire. Calpine’s
spokespeople do not foresee that the air district will delay issuance
of its permit beyond next September.

The proposed Russell City Energy Center will burn natural gas to
create electricity while also using the heat created by that cycle to
create steam. The steam would power a second electric turbine, thereby
producing more electricity than the typical natural gas power plant.
The energy center would also use recycled wastewater from the City of
Hayward to cool its machinery and generate steam, rather than diverting
potential drinking water for the plant, as many older facilities
do.

But many people who actually have to live and work near the power
plant take issue with Calpine’s claim to “greenness.” A coalition of
students, faculty, and staff from Chabot College, as well as citizens
and environmental activist groups, say they are seriously concerned
about emissions from the proposed plant. The California Energy
Commission granted Calpine a permit to build based on expected
emissions during peak operation, when the electricity and pollutant
output is much more efficient, and not during start-up, when power
plants generally produce many more times the amount of pollutants. So
the emissions from an average day at the plant might be considerably
higher than the energy commission expected. The final commission
decision suggested that Calpine purchase top-of-the-line technology
that would significantly reduce the amount of time needed for the plant
to start up. Calpine cited economic reasons for not purchasing the
technology and made some compromises with the CEC including a promise
to limit start-ups between June and September. “Bottom line is it’s
still illegal,” said Hayward resident and real estate agent Rob
Simpson, who asserts that the plant’s toxin output during start-ups
will violate the federal Clean Air Act.

Not all of Hayward is opposing Calpine’s presence in Russell City.
The city council still supports the plant and is loath to turn down the
millions of dollars in property tax revenue and the 650 temporary jobs
and 30 permanent jobs that Calpine construction would create during a
recession. Even after the $21 million in charitable donations promised
the city in 2001 has been whittled down to $10 million, there’s still
political support for the Russell City Energy Center. “My view is,
overall, there’s more benefits than non-benefits,” said Public Works
Director Bob Bauman. “And that’s always a judgment call when it comes
to things as complex as this.” Bauman said that after ten years of
meetings by the city council and the energy commission, opponents had
plenty of opportunity to voice their opinion. He believes that, with
the sanction of the energy commission and probably the air district,
Calpine’s energy center will be safe and make economic sense for
Hayward.

But there are uncertainties amidst Calpine’s promises. Last summer,
Calpine President and CEO Jack A. Fusco wrote in the San Francisco
Sentinel
that the Russell City Energy Center would “help replace
older plants around the state and lead to improvements in air and water
quality.” However, Calpine spokeswoman Norma Dunn admitted that Calpine
has no plans to shut down any of its older plants. She suggested that
it was California state policy to phase out older, more polluting
plants, and yet, spokesman Percy Della said that agency possesses
absolutely no authority to shut down a private power plant to which it
has previously granted a permit.

Hayward residents have had one previous victory against egregious
pollution. At the time the Russell City Energy Center was initially
proposed by Calpine, another energy company was also proposing its own,
nearby Eastshore Energy Center. It would have been a similar but
smaller power plant much closer to the Hayward city center. However,
the citizens of Hayward rallied against the Tierra Corporation’s plans,
and the widespread resistance factored in the energy commission’s
decision to deny Tierra a permit to build. In its final 2008 decision,
the commission cited the proposed plant’s threat to aviation at the
nearby airport, but also noted that “members of the Hayward community
expressed vigorous opposition to the [Eastshore Energy Center]. Scores
of individuals, community representatives, and elected officials
participated at our public hearings. The Energy Commission’s Docket
Unit received more than 1,500 written comments on the [Eastshore Energy
Center].”

The Russell City Energy Center is further away from the city center,
making it “out of sight, out of mind” for the average Hayward resident.
It’s also much bigger than Eastshore would have been, so Calpine has a
bigger stake in making sure it is constructed and the permitting
process has been more drawn out. Susan Sperling says the residents of
Hayward had success in opposing Eastshore but not Russell City because
“the Russell City power plant had rather quietly been approved at a
time when there was much less consciousness of environmental justice.”
Unlike Eastshore, she added, it “really came to our attention when it
was further along in the process.”

Opponents of the Russell City Energy Center aren’t sure they’ll have
a happy ending like they did with Eastshore. But the permit process has
moved so slowly that any number of complications could arise for
Calpine, and opponents have been taking advantage of every opportunity
to throw a wrench in Calpine’s plans. The dogged opposition to the
Russell City Energy Center has been propelled by ordinary citizens like
Rob Simpson, who assembled more than one thousand Hayward residents and
slogged through bureaucracy and legalese on his own time to stop the
plant.

If the air district issues a permit, and it most likely will,
opponents of Calpine can appeal the decision to the Environmental
Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board. Yet the EPA already
saw an appeal hoping to shut down the Russell City Energy Center after
California issued a state permit for the power plant, and many think
the EPA would expedite any new appeal in favor of Calpine.

If opponents of the plant can’t gain the upper hand via the
regulatory process, some plan to try other methods. Simpson noted in a
recent e-mail that since the City of Hayward still technically owns the
property on which the energy center will be built, he and other
residents might consider proposing a ballot initiative to take away the
land from Calpine, or even ask a state or federal court to require
Hayward officials to shut down Calpine’s operations.

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