By Miriam Raftery
“How can you sit there and say it’s safe to be there when that canyon has burned every year—and you’re going to put those towers up, leave us with no power, and we only have one way in and one way out?” -- Myles Thurman, Lakeside
February 3, 2010 (Lakeside) – San Diego Gas & Electric officials received a far-from-warm welcome from Lakeside residents at a community forum last night hosted by the utility to discuss impacts of Sunrise Powerlink, the proposed high-voltage power line that SDG&E wants to run through Lakeside's El Monte Valley.
SDG&E plans to hold a follow-up meeting within 30 days.
“The only reason my house was saved last time was because aircraft dropped water and landed in El Monte Valley,” Myles Thurman said. “How can you sit there and say it’s safe to be there when that canyon has burned every year—and you’re going to put those towers up, leave us with no power, and we only have one way in and one way out?”
Acree Shreve, fire marshal for SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink Project, insisted that firefighters “fight fires all the time around power lines” but failed to answer pointed questions asking how that could be accomplished in such a narrow valley that already has smaller power lines obstructing some areas. He claimed firefighting aircraft won’t fly into remote canyons even if there are no Powerlines there.
But Milt Cyphert, co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition formed to halt construction of the high-voltage Powerlink project, recalled dense smoke from the Cedar Fire that claimed his Lakeside home. “During the Cedar Fire, planes would fly in low. Now you’re changing that trajectory,” he charged. He said firefighting aircraft would not fly into blinding smoke if they could not see 150-200 foot high towers on mobile units proposed for El Monte Valley.
Nor did Shreve’s suggestion that lines could be de-energized inspire confidence among community members. While a local fire official could request that power be shut off and theoretically the lines could be de-energized “with a phonecall” at “light year speed”, Shreve noted that SDG&E would first have to weigh impact of any downstream loss of power to other communities, particularly if other major lines were down.
Shreve noted that super-scooper planes used to battle the Cedar Fire were in the County for just one season and currently are not deployed here.
“So if the Governor flies them down, we can’t use them,” Cyphert countered.
Shreve hedged, looking decidedly uncomfortable.
“You didn’t say I’m wrong,” Cyphert pressed.
Shreve responded, “I didn’t…but I’m not familiar with this area.”
A woman in the audience fired back, “Well don’t you think you should be?”
Conspicuously absent from the meeting was Lakeside’s new Fire Chief Andy Parr, appointed to replace former Chief Mark Baker, who had been outspoken in his concerns about potential fire hazards posed by the Powerlink. Baker was ousted by the Lakeside Fire Protection Board over vocal opposition from irate Lakeside residents.
“Where’s Chief Parr?” one Lakeside resident asked, noting Baker’s concerns over what would happen if Powerlink is built. “Our former chief said this [El Monte Valley] is not defensible space.”
“I did know about the meeting, though it didn’t arrive in the mail until Monday and I had a family commitment,” Chief Parr told East County Magazine today.
Asked his opinion on whether Powerlink poses a fire danger to Lakeside, he replied, “The former chief had a right to make whatever statement he wanted to make; I’m not quite sure if he made that as a citizen or as a fire chief. My opinion is the same as the board. We don’t have an opinion on the Powerlink; we don’t have a dog in the game. However we are monitoring the situation and we are attending meetings as requested or needed.”
ECM asked Parr whether or not firefighting aircraft would have their ability to fight fires in El Monte valley diminished by the Powerlink. “I can’t say without hearing the whole discussion,” said Parr, who pledged to be at the next meeting on the issue. “I know that’s a concern to the community.”
At last night’s meeting, resident after resident expressed fear that their lives and properties would be at risk if the Powerlink is built. One man, voice trembling, stated that if a fire starts now, “You’re not gonna catch it ‘til it gets to this community. Once it’s there, we’re sitting ducks.”
Thurman accused SDG&E of misrepresenting conversations with Baker. He recalled a meeting at which an SDG&E representative “claimed to have talked to the Chief, Chief Baker. A guy, not in uniform, stood up and said `When did you talk to Lakeside’s Chief?' He was Chief Baker.”
He noted that fires have started every year in El Monte Valley in recent times. “This is the highest burning valley in the County! Why are you running this line through a small canyon? We were not informed.”
Lakeside’s planning group members have stated that they were not told that Powerlink was slated to go through their community until after the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the project. Nor were most Lakeside residents informed, other than a handful living closest to the proposed towers.
Another woman said many residents rely on well water to fight fires—an option that would vanish if power is shut off. “No water, no way to fight fires.”
A geologist, Lyne Perry, confirmed that one man present had a home that was saved from burning by planes able to fly in swiftly at low angles. “His home would have burned if Powerlink was there,” she said. Another audience member expressed concern that arcing from a power line could cause a fire.
A hand-out distributed by SDG&E stated that the company would implement “on-going fire patrols” when state and local fire agencies elevate staffing due to seasonal fire conditions. Upon questioning, however, SDG&E revealed that fire patrols would only be present during the construction phase of the project, drawing groans of disgust from audience members.
Lakeside Fire Board director Rick Smith fired off some questions of his own about SDG&E’s proposal for a fire suppression mitigation fund totaling $250,000 in the first year and $59,000 in subsequent years to enhance firefighting along the line. SDG&E also proposed a defensible space mitigation fund of $26 million/year for the life of the project to enhance defensible space. Those funds would be shared among “eight or nine” jurisdictions, an SDG&E representative said in answer to ECM’s question.
Smith noted that Lakeside’s share would not be enough.
“How far do you think that will go? I can’t even hire a firefighter,” he said. “I might be able to fill the tanks one time.” He pressed SDG&E to return with answers to community concerns at the next meeting, to be held within a month at a time and place to be determined.
Some community members complained of what they described as bullying tactics by SDG&E used to gain access to their properties for surveying purposes. “I was threatened,” said Jody Morgan. “I didn’t want to let them on my property, but can’t afford a fine or a lawyer. I didn’t want to go to jail.” He has two nesting pairs of eagles on his land. He complained that after accessing his property, SDG&E then told neighbors he had decided to cooperate and be supportive of the project. A neighbor’s granddaughter confirmed the story and said her elderly relative was distressed by the matter.
SDG&E representatives urged residents to report such complaints.
Save El Capitan, a citizens' group, has made a video to show what's at stake:
Perry, who enjoys paragliding, said there have been several near misses with SDG&E helicopters flying close to paragliders in the valley, “so close we get wake from them. There are lives at stake here,” she said, adding that impacts on paragliders on the face of El Capitan mountain in Lakeside were “ignored” in the project’s final environmental impact statement. “There will be deaths if you put those towers across the face of El Cap,” she predicted.
Many residents bjected to desecration of scenic views of El Monte Valley and El Capitan in an officially designated scenic view corridor so named for its similarity to El Capitan peak in Yosemite National Park. They asked why SDG&E consented to underground lines in Alpine, but not Lakeside—particularly the seven-mile stretch through El Monte Valley.
SDG&E spokesman Gary Akin said the valley was too narrow and steep for underground vaults which require 60-feet-wide areas with access to “every inch” of the underground lines for maintenance. He explained that peak-to-peak transmission provides maximum effic8iency.
ECM’s editor Miriam Raftery asked how much safer underground lines are than overhead ones.
“Underground lines don’t start fires,” Shreve replied.
One property owner slated for a road to be carved across her land to provide access to Powerlink said she fears off-roaders would use the road and that sparks could cause a fire.
“I was going to subdivide my land for my children,” she added, concerned over the taking of her property.
Area residents and local officials suggested other potential routes, including undergrounding lines along El Monte Road or along a road that once supported a flume line, but SDG&E found fault with each suggestion. When a resident asked about putting lines along Old Highway 80 instead of through Lakeside, an SDG&E represented objected on grounds that Old Highway 80 has “historic concrete.”
Milt Cyphert fired back a suggestion that the utility was more concerned about money that the safety of area residents. “In the Cedar Fire, 17 people died because they couldn’t get out,” he said. “How much are Lakeside residents’ lives worth to SDG&E?”
ECM asked SDG&E’s Akins about a suggestion raised in an Alpine meeting, where a resident asked why Powerlink couldn’t go down the median of Interstate 8. Akins said Cal-Trans has never allowed joint uses. Pressed on whether SDG&E believed a route along I-8 was feasible if legislators could prevail upon Cal-Trans to allow it, he replied, “If Cal-Trans would make it available and we could come up with a way to keep our workers safe, sure, we would entertain that. “
Many Lakeside residents complained that they did not receive notice of the community meeting and were not invited to be on the community panels formed by SDG&E. “We lost our voice in that process and then they [SDG&E] were fined $1.1 million for lying about it,” Laura Cyphert said at another recent community meeting on Powerlink.
Although the meetings are open to the public, most present said they learned of the meeting through the East County Community Action Coalition’s email, not from SDG&E. “You have names and addresses of all your ratepayers. Why not send to everyone in this zip code?” one citizen asked.
Others voiced concern that property values would decline and voiced objections to living near the sound of cracking and snapping from high voltage lines, as well as health concerns associated with electromagnetic frequencies from the lines.
At least one resident claimed he has already suffered property damage. “I’ve lost $300,000. My house was worth $750,000 and I had to sell it at a discount because of Powerlink,” he said, likening plans to put high voltage lines through El Monte Valley to “draping wires across the Washington Monument.”
SDG&E responded that residents who can prove property devaluation due to Powerlink could file a claim through the company’s claims department.
Laura Cyphert asked whether anyone has ever successfully won a similar claim; SDG&E’s official responded that he didn’t know. Cyphert said the utility had reneged on plans to lower the height of towers on peaks through the valley and objected to placement of towers atop ridgelines. Akins said placement was determined in part due to a desire to keep towers uphill and away from homes, while avoiding “skylining” with all towers on ridges.
“Visually and from fire safety concerns, it’s in the absolutely worse place,” one resident challenged.
Milt Cyphert, who also chairs a citizens’ oversight committee that monitors the Lakeside Fire Protection District board, made a formal request for fire officials to attend the next meeting.
Sunrise Powerlink was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission and SDG&E plans to commence construction in June, company representatives told Lakeside residents. A portion of the project through federal forest lands has not yet won approval from the Cleveland National Forest’s director. Two lawsuits also seek to challenge the PUC’s approval in court on environmental grounds, as well as challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s approval.
Some Lakeside residents voiced readiness to mount a new legal challenge in the near future.
SDG&E has already admitted in PUC documents that its power lines have caused 166 fires in five and a half years. The utility has faced numerous legal challenges and paid out hefty settlements in some cases, though it claims the higher voltage Powerlink lines would not pose a fire hazard.
The EIR report submitted to the state, however, has described Powerlink as presenting a “severe and unmitigatible fire hazard.”
That hazard may be worst of all in Lakeside, where many residents have already been burned by the Cedar Fire, at the time the worst wildfire in California history.
"I'm an all-American guy. I hold my freedom very dear," frustrated resident Rick Harper said. "If something does happen to my property, I'm going to seek recourse."
“How will you handle a large class action lawsuit,” resident Thurman asked SDG&E’s representatives, “not if, but when a fire comes?”
Editor's note: SDG&E later cancelled the follow-up meeting with Lakeside citizens and planners, as well as multiple rescheduled meetings, citing schedule conflicts and weather issues. As of March 2011, SDG&E has failed to fulfill its promise to Lakeside residents to come back with answers to concerns raised in the February 2010 meeting. Despite residents long battle to block the Powerlink, as ECM has reported in numerous other articles, Powerlink is now under construction across the face of El Capitan Mountain and through the El Monte Valley.