Protect the bay — and a neighborhood

By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, May 10, 2006]
The Regional Water Quality Control Board is scheduled to vote today on whether to accept the recommendation of its staff and approve a permit that would allow Mirant Corp. to continue operating its Potrero power plant in San Francisco out of compliance with environmental standards until June 30, 2011. The board should reject the permit.

Under its permit, Mirant’s Potrero plant uses a “once-through” cooling system that every day sucks some 226 million gallons of water from San Francisco Bay, runs it through super-heated plant facilities, then returns it into the bay as scalding, polluted discharge. The adverse impact to the regional environment isn’t limited to the fish and other organisms essential to the bay’s ecosystem that are sucked into the plant, cooked alive, then spewed back. Mounting evidence additionally demonstrates that the Potrero plant’s massive output in shallow water represents a significant environmental threat, too, stirring up polluted sediments laced with harmful levels of copper, dioxins, mercury, PCBs and other toxins, and dispersing them throughout the bay.

The permit by which Mirant operates its plant in this manner was issued in 1994, for a five-year period. In 1999, the regional water board granted an administrative extension of Mirant’s permit for another five years, expiring in May 2004. Since that time, the permit has been extended by administrative inaction. Now, the regional water board’s staff is proposing that the permit be extended again, this time until 2011 — representing a remarkable 17-year run, virtually without modification, for a five-year permit. In and of itself, such regulatory languor would not be unwelcome if no circumstances had changed since the original issuance of the permit.

But much has changed since 1994.

First, we have seen increasingly convincing evidence of the environmental damage this power plant is doing to the San Francisco Bay and, quite possibly, to the surrounding communities. The San Francisco neighborhoods of Potrero Hill, Bayview and Hunters Point, which include some of the city’s most economically disadvantaged residents, have in recent years seen disturbingly high rates of asthma and other health-care problems known to be influenced by environmental factors. Even if the nexus between water pollution and the high prevalence of health issues remains inconclusive, it is hardly overreaching for environmental regulators to require a power plant to merely comply with standards where such problems exist. Indeed, it is a shocking affront to the notion of environmental justice — the principle of fair and even-handed enforcement of environmental protections regardless of race, color, national origin, or income — that Mirant’s noncompliance in this vulnerable area could be permitted for still another five years.

Second, a clear consensus has emerged since 1994 concerning the harms posed by once-through cooling systems such as that used by Mirant’s Potrero power plant. When Mirant sought to expand its Potrero operation in 2002, in fact, the state Energy Commission opposed the proposal because of the significant harm to aquatic biological resources posed by the facility’s cooling system. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission similarly opposed the plant’s expansion, citing the feasibility of cooling system alternatives that would not pollute the bay. As recently as last month, the State Lands Commission resolved to reject leases for power plants statewide that utilize once-through systems for cooling.

Third, members of the regional water board have a better choice before them. Working together, with leadership from Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, S.F. Public Utilities Commission General Manager Susan Leal and others, city officials and community leaders have forged an alternative permit that provides a reasonable schedule for Mirant to bring its plant into compliance with current laws. The community-backed permit allows Mirant to come into compliance over time by installing an upland cooling system — with no adverse impacts to the bay — or to close the plant when it is no longer needed for electric reliability.

Over the course of many years, city and community leaders have worked diligently to clean-up old, dirty power plants in San Francisco or replace them with cleaner, more reliable sources of electricity generation. We have done so in full partnership and cooperation with the California Public Utilities Commission, the Independent System Operator, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and other community and governmental entities. Now, the Regional Water Quality Control Board has the opportunity to join and support this longstanding effort by enforcing current water quality standards.

Today’s vote is a decisive moment for environmental protection in the Bay Area. The regional board should reject the staff-proposed permit before it, and instead adopt the community-backed alternative that protects the bay and the people who live around it. It is time for Mirant to stop polluting San Francisco Bay.

Dennis Herrera is San Francisco’s city attorney.