The Power Plant Cluster

Environmental groups are challenging a group of East Bay power stations that are exploiting a loophole in federal law.

Typically, a major new power plant must meet strict air pollution and greenhouse gas regulations. But by clustering several small fossil-fuel plants together in the same area, energy producers can effectively exploit a legal loophole and avoid the tougher rules placed on large facilities. Several environmental groups allege that PG&E and energy companies are doing just that with four smaller power plants in the East Bay, and that the cluster will produce more pollution cumulatively than would a large plant. They argue that the cluster thus presents a danger to public health and endangered species, particularly the rare Lange’s Metalmark butterfly.

Last month, San Francisco’s Wild Equity Institute, Richmond’s Communities for a Better Environment, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an official notice of their intention to sue the California Energy Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several power plant owners and operators for authorizing, constructing, and operating the cluster of four natural-gas power plants in Antioch and Oakley. Over the past three years, the California Energy Commission has approved three new power stations within one mile of the existing Contra Costa County Power Plant in Antioch. The environmental groups are challenging the power plants under the federal Clean Air and Endangered Species acts.

“Power plants right next door to each other will emit more pollution than a major source,” said Brent Plater of the Wild Equity Institute. “And each is just under the limit” of being considered “a major pollution source.” As a result, the plants have not been subjected to the same tough rules that would govern a major facility.

The environmental groups contend that the cluster will emit enough cumulative pollution to push the Lange’s Metalmark butterfly to extinction. The butterfly is endemic to the Antioch Dunes, and the nitrogen emissions from the power stations are changing the dunes’ soil conditions and killing off the Lange’s Metalmark caterpillar’s sole food source — the naked-stemmed buckwheat.

Previously, the Wild Equity Institute and Communities for a Better Environment challenged one of the power plants — a PG&E station in Antioch — in court over concerns for the Lange’s Metalmark. But that litigation failed to protect the endangered butterfly.

The environmental groups realize that their new court action will not directly halt construction of the plant cluster. But they hope the litigation will result in stricter pollution controls for each facility — and perhaps delay construction to a point in the future when PG&E concludes that they’re no longer necessary because of an increase in renewable energy production.

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