The Mouse vs. the Megawatt

Will a new Hayward power plant disrupt a fragile marsh?

From the observation deck of the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center, you can look out on a sweeping vista that stretches eastward from the San Francisco skyline and Mt. Tam to the brown hump of Mt. Diablo. But the landscape in the foreground is more extraordinary than it looks. Barn swallows twitter and circle overhead, and shades of brown, red, and green speckle the scrubby vegetation that stretches flat toward the bay. This is the Hayward Marsh, nearly 400 acres restored to the kind of wetlands that once covered the shores. If you tour the area with shoreline director Mark Taylor, he’ll point out snowy egrets on the shores of small islands planted in an innovative five-basin marsh system that takes secondary treated wastewater through a series of ponds so that it is cleaned and mixed with saltwater before it enters the bay.

“They nest in bands of vegetation that were placed there for water quality and wildlife,” he explains. If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of the California least tern or the California clapper rail; the area plays host to 40,000 birds a year.

The shoreline here also includes a 27-acre preserve set aside for the tiny and endangered salt-marsh harvest mouse. Weighing less than a nickel, with a body about the size of your thumb, this mouse is the smallest rodent in the US. But now it, and the rest of the creatures that find refuge here, might be about to get a big new neighbor. Just yards from the marsh, next to a tidal channel where Taylor points out a turkey vulture recovering from a wing injury and a mallard flashing a bright violet band of color, there could be a 600-megawatt, natural-gas-fired, combined-cycle electrical plant within three years. The proposed Russell City Energy Center, a joint project of Calpine Corporation and Bechtel Enterprises, would occupy a 14-acre site in Hayward’s industrial corridor, backing up to the marsh. The plant would use water — 3.3 million gallons per day — from the sewage-treatment plant across the way as part of its combined-cycle power generation. The plant would be between seven and twelve stories high, with two 145-foot cooling towers. The proposal includes a 120-foot-high wavy architectural screen that would disguise the plant to a certain degree — a nod to the city’s concerns that the plant, visible to commuters as they exit the San Mateo Bridge, would sit at Hayward’s front door and come to define the city.

Calpine/Bechtel starting looking for potential power-plant sites throughout the Bay Area in 1996, and the Hayward site lies in between their existing plants in San Jose and Pittsburg. The company’s goal, says spokesperson Lisa Poelle, is to build newer plants that use 40 percent less fuel.

“Modern power plants will actually improve the air,” she says. “As you get power generated through modern facilities, the older ones won’t be used. If we can be the best, most environmentally friendly power plants we can be, as we get four or five of these around the Bay Area, our air quality will improve.”

Some environmental groups agree; the Sierra Club took out full-page newspaper ads to support the highly contested Calpine/Bechtel project in San Jose. But other local groups say the Bay Area, with its dismal air quality, is just not a good place for new electricity generators. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that older, polluting plants will be shut off, so the sum effect of newer plants could be simply more pollution.

“The Bay Area is currently already in violation of air-quality standards,” says Anne Simon, senior attorney at Communities for a Better Environment. “While these large natural-gas plants are touted as being ‘clean,’ the amount of pollution that comes out of them is quite large. Sure, they may be less polluting than if you burned coal, but they still emit lots of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog, and they emit lots of particulate matter, which contribute to respiratory problems. Hundreds of tons of pollution more is not less — that’s the fundamental part of the equation the power companies aren’t telling people.”

Although CBE is not working on the Russell City project directly, the handful of residents who showed up for a recent workshop held by the California Energy Commission to evaluate the Calpine/Bechtel application raised the same concerns about pollution. “I don’t want to sound like a NIMBY or anything,” said one, “but I live right downwind of this thing — that plume’s going to be blowing straight at me. How bad is the smog going to be?” The answer, according to a Calpine/Bechtel engineer, is not bad at all; the amount of pollution that settles locally will be “so small it can’t even be measured.” True, the plant will emit about 135 tons of nitrogen oxides a year, but the company is required to compensate for that smog-building emission by buying up credits (for instance, helping an existing factory clean up its act).

“There’s really no way you can harm the environment or the public with these projects,” says Poelle. “You have to be able to demonstrate to the Energy Commission that there is no adverse impact to human health or to the environment, or you can’t build it, and if you’re ever out of compliance, you’re shut down.”

But for the 208 species of birds in the Hayward marsh, and for the endangered saltwater harvest mouse, the impacts have less to do with chemical emissions and more to do with the scope of such a large project in their midst. The park district’s Taylor is concerned that even the construction of the plant could cause serious damage: “We don’t know how sensitive the waterfowl and shorebirds will be to, say, pile driving,” he says. “If it’s during nesting season, it could be a problem.”

And once the plant is built, a whole host of new concerns will arise. Such a large structure — especially if it’s covered with a mesh screen — could give predatory birds a place to perch and hunt the thousands of smaller fowl that use the marsh as a resting spot on long migrations, and the many who nest there. Joe DiDonato, wildlife program manager for the East Bay Regional Parks District, has also been studying the issue of nighttime lights on the plant: “Nighttime migratory birds may be attracted to lights, and lights might disturb nesting birds,” he says. “But on the other hand, birds flying in at night may not see the towers if there are no lights. Those towers definitely present a risk as far as bird impacts both night and day. Every time you drive by, those birds flush, and while we may not be talking about a significant number of birds, it’s significant in terms of the species because there are a number of endangered birds who use the shoreline.”

Another major issue is management of the tidal levels in the adjacent mouse preserve. The 27 acres that the little brown mouse calls home, covered with pickleweed in an area that is more or less underwater depending on the tides and park management of water channels, lies downstream of a proposed flood-control channel for the plant. This channel would handle runoff water in case of a fire or extra water at the generator site — and this water would eventually end up in the harvest mouse’s home. The unknown level of contamination in that water is certainly a worry, but even just having too much water on the site poses a major problem for the mouse.

“The mouse’s habitat is extremely limited,” says DiDonato. “It’s not like they can just move somewhere else. When the marsh is flooded, the mouse is very susceptible to predation, because he may be exposed on a remnant piece of pickleweed above the high tide. We don’t want to cause that to happen more than it would naturally. If there’s two or three days’ worth of flooding, the mice are susceptible during that whole time. And at certain times of the year, like nesting, there are juveniles who can’t swim.” And although the park service can drain the mouse preserve if necessary, that would require shutting down and draining off the entire freshwater marsh system as well.

Luckily, the book is far from closed on these issues, and Calpine/Bechtel might come up with solutions that satisfy wildlife advocates. But whatever they do, they’ve got to do it twice as quickly as usual: The Russell City project will be the first of its kind to be approved on the CEC’s new fast-track approval process.

“It’s the same level of scrutiny, just compressed,” says Poelle, but the quick turnaround bothers park administrators. “The biggest issue for us is that this thing is moving like a freight train because of the energy crisis,” says EBRPD Assistant General Manager for Land Bob Doyle. “The district’s been very disappointed with how it’s been jammed through, and we’re going to continue to express our concerns and expose those parts of the application which have a negative impact.”

DiDonato points out that in its assessment of biological impacts, Calpine/Bechtel did not bother to consult the fifteen-plus years’ worth of data on sensitive species and their habitats at the site. “We offered to give all that information to the biological consultants,” he says, “but were pretty much not contacted for our wealth of information.” (Instead, the assessment used the outdated California Natural Diversity Database.) DiDonato says he’s still more than willing to share his data to fill out the picture — but that will take time, and the CEC has set a quick turnaround of less than two months for the next workshop.

The California Energy Commission has complete authority over the approval of power-plant permits; these plants are one of the few areas where city governments have almost no say in the use of land within their boundaries. Saying “no” probably would have done little good, but the city of Hayward does stand to benefit if Calpine/Bechtel joins the neighborhood: The company has committed to over $16 million in donations to the city’s library, educational foundation, and shoreline trail improvements. As part of the package, the city’s wastewater treatment facility, which would provide water to the plant, would also get an upgrade. But to the EBRPD — which manages the Hayward shoreline adjacent to the city boundary, where the plant would be — the city was a little too accommodating.

“The city certainly worked fast,” says Doyle. “It looks like they had so much to benefit from the project that they gave the shoreline short shrift. We’re not opposed to the power plant, but we’re very concerned because we have the largest marsh ecosystem on the West Coast that for over 25 years has had about $25 million of public funds for restoration poured into it, and it’s been a huge success. Now the city stands to get millions of dollars, and the park district stands to get the impacts.”

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