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Santee Council to weigh resolution opposing power plant March 28;  San Diego Council to consider zoning change to allow facility on April 26

By Miriam Raftery

March 25, 2012 (San Diego/Santee) – Seventeen staffers from the California Energy Commission heard from concerned residents at a standing-room-only workshop on a proposed gas-fired power plant this week at Mission Trails Regional Park.  Over 60 residents filled out speaker cards to oppose the controversial project and dozens more packed the room.  

In emotionally charged testimony, residents pleaded for the project to be withdrawn or approval denied.  They voiced concerns over the dangers pose by wildfire and explosions as well as worries over noise, traffic, air pollution, visual blight, and impacts on wildlife, homes, schools, and Mission Trails Regional Park.

“We’re at the beginning of the process, not the end,” said Eric Solorio, who chaired the meeting.  A panel of experts from the CEC then offered statements on their areas of expertise on topics such as archaeology, health,  biology, visual  aesthetics, safety, and more.

A key stumbling block for Cogentrix, the project applicant, is that the land is zoned for open space, not industrial use.  San Diego’s City Council will vote on a proposed zoning change April 26.  While a state override is possible, compelling public convenience and necessity would have to be demonstrated including lack of viable alternatives.   This has “rarely” been invoked, the crowd was told.

Santee’s City Council, which has no formal power to halt the project, will vote March 28 on a resolution voicing opposition to the plant.  “I presume we’ll take a position against it until we know it will not have a negative impact,” Councilman Jack Dale predicted.  He suggested that moving the facility farther north could lessen visual impacts and said that the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has also voiced concerns.  He also questioned whether the plant might seek to expand beyond producing power 40% of the year in the future.

Bob Kiesling with the Grossmont union High School District voiced concerns over plumes of pollutants “heading our way” toward West Hills High School.  He said traffic near the school is already a “nightmare” and also objected to the 11 smokestacks, each 100 feet high, that would be “huge and directly visible.”  Noting that the football field is only 3500 feet away, he also had concerns over health impacts and noise.

How noisy is a 100-MW peaker power plant fueled by natural gas? 

ECM located a video demonstrating  whining and hissing noises made by a 49-MW gas peaker plant in Chula Vista:   A neighboring business states that “it hurts, when you’re working quietly in here it fills your brain with this noise and it won’t go away…The first day, I couldn’t figure it out, it sounds like an alarm’s going off.” Another worker described the sound as “like an aircraft.”

Proponents contend construction of peaker plants is necessary for times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, as the state shifts towards more renewable fuel sources.   This revelation led several speakers to question just how “green” industrial-scale solar farms and wind turbine projects really are, and several advocated for investment in rooftop solar instead.

ECM asked the CEC how many other peaker plants have recently been approved.  There are many, and three are in San Diego County.  We received the following list, then googled to find additional location details and links—some official project descriptions others videos made by citizens:

Calpeak Escondido (49 MW)

201 Enterprise St., Escondido

Orange Grove - Fallbrook area (96 MW)

Wildflower Larkspur - also in the Otay Mesa area I believe (90 MW)

 All but Orange Grove were emergency peakers approved in 2001 to address the rolling blackouts that were occurring during the Energy Crisis. The Energy Commission also has a map that shows more recently approved peakers (including Orange Grove) at:

Rudy Reyes, a candidate for County Supervisor, gave a face to the worst-case scenario.  “I’m the worst injured in the 2003 fires,” said Reyes, who was burned over 60% of his body. He suffered horrific facial scarring, multiple surgeries, loss of an ear and a finger in the blaze which began in Lakeside and charred a path westward through Scripps Ranch—burning everything in its path in the very area where the power plant is proposed.  An archaeologist, Reyes also raised concerns over artifacts in the region long frequented by Native Americans.

ECM editor Miriam Raftery offered her expertise as a journalist who has covered wildfires for 30 years in this region.  “Don’t be too confident that this project cannot burn,” she advised, noting that many properties that were not supposed to burn in previous fires did.  As examples she listed her publisher’s steel-framed house in Lakeside which melted in the face of flames 300-feet high, a local scientist whose Poway home with moat also burned, and a valley where Blackwater planned to build a training camp. Blackwater’s vice president proclaimed the valley would not burn in 2007, but it did, fueled by 100 mph winds.

Noting that the 2007 wildfires prompted half a million people to evacuate and that the 2003 fires killed 14 people, she noted, “Imagine how much worse those would have been if a gas-fired power plant had exploded.”  She asked the applicant’s representatives if they could guarantee that the project would not explode and burn in a wildfire.  The applicant did not answer.  Raftery also asked how much insurance the applicant had, noting that SDG&E is seeking to charge ratepayers for its uninsured liability costs for wildfires caused by its power lines.  Again, the applicant’s representative, Lori Ziebart, failed to offer a specific response—but did state that “We’re committed to building a project that protects public health and public safety.”

Rick Tyler, who is in charge of assessing fire protection as well as worker safety of the project for the CEC, made clear that “the issue of firestorms requires some further consideration. It has to be considered and certainly is a concern we’re hearing tonight.”

An audience member asked CEC members if they are paid by the applicant. Tyler responded staunchly, “I am not paid by the applicant. I am paid by the State of California. You will get my honest, unbiased opinion—the best technical opinion that I can provide you.” 

Tyler also indicated he has asked for a fire needs assessment, that fire agencies including Cal-Fire, Santee and San Diego will be consulted and that any drawdown on local firefighting resources would also have to be mitigated if the project is approved.

Tina Nagle worried about a “serious threat to wildlife and 5,800 acres of wilderness and trails” at Mission Trails and proximity of several schools. “Water is already in short supply,” she noted. “If a major fire broke out in the area, water would be in critical supply.”

Norbert Meister pointed to a screen showing the proposed site, which would be visible from Mission Gorge Road.  “That’s my view from my front window,” he said. “I didn’t spend my hard-earned money, me and my wife, to look at that,” he said of the proposed power plant.

Several residents objected to air monitoring stations being positioned six miles away in El Cajon and Tierrasanta, albeit along areas with high traffic.  Noting proximity of a nursing facility with elderly patients already suffering respiratory problems, residents sought testing onsite.

Staffer comments raised additional concerns, citing past explosions and fires caused by transformers and flushing of lines, and explosions that in some cases destroyed entire facilities.  Although some standards have since improved, many still voiced concerns over potential fires related to the plant itself and an underground gas line, as well as the potential to strike unexploded ordnance on the former military firing range during construction.

Van Collingsworth with Preserve Wild Santee asked pointedly, “How do we defeat this project?”  He objected to use of natural gas, a fossil fuel, and advocated for investment in solar storage instead.  He also believes the project would degrade property values and noted that the area is rated by the state as a “severe fire hazard zone.”  Moreover, during past fires, he observed, “The City of San Diego does not respond; it’s left to the Santee Fire Department and Police…It’s no man’s land out there.”

He called the project “a Trojan Horse” that may grow with time (a possibility that would require new state approval).  He recalled that the landfill next to the project “started small and now is one of the largest in California.”A staffer responded that 90% of peaker plants in the state run less than 1,000 hours a year.

Resident Mike Walker admonished that the project would have, “a serious impact on housing prices” and asked staff to weigh “the stress it will put on families.”

Staffer Lisa Worrall told the crowd that under the California Environmental Quality Act, “there are no regulations pertaining to property values.”

A senior citizen who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) express fear for her health and others.  “I expect a lot of people will be sick,” she said. “Please keep Santee free of the power plant.”

Another woman who lives in a local care facility spoke in a rasping, halting voice.  “I have COPD,” she said, adding that the facility where she lives caers for 12 seniors.  “Our job is to keep them healthy. My partner is here, he’s 86 years old, and we have grandchildren…I’m here to fight for us.”

Lisa Knight noted that many homeowners paid $600,000 or $700,000 for homes near Mission Trails. “We’re not the ghetto,” she said, adding that the area sometimes has fog that “will keep that smog on top of us.”

Others voiced concerns over a urea storage tank on the premises, though a staffer said other alternatives(two types of ammonia) pose even greater potential problems.  A vapor containment vessel is proposed for underneath the storage in the event of a loss of pressure, a staffer stated.

William Dudley asked if the project is in the line of sight from Cowles Mountain, a very popular hiking trail, and other scenic vistas in Mission Trails Regional Park.

A woman objected to the “industrialization” proposed, adding, “I might be the person to go lay down in front of the bulldozer if this goes through.”

A man presented the CEC with a notebook filled with signed petitions by people opposed to the project: 234 signed in person and another 675 signed online.  He objected to cutting away a hillside that is “beautiful…once it’s gone, you’ll never replace it.”

Perhaps the most signifcant speaker, however, was Roslind Varghese, a Santee resident who has filed papers as an intervener, meaning she is a legal party in the matter.  “Whatever you say here is not part of the public record,” Varghese told the audience.  “We need to be united in our focus.”

She questioned why the CEC relied on the application for key information and said the plant should be sited at least 15-20 miles away from homes.  She and others also objected to lack of notification, though the CEC said it was only required to notify people within a half mile of the project.  Notices were sent to some local libraries, according to the CEC, but many considered that inadequate outreach.

Varghese asked why the plan has no assurance of local jobs as opposed to outsourcing to firms hiring people from overseas, and said there are no facts for the applicant’s contention that noise, water and air quality are not major issues.  She said she’s been gathering signatures, too in San Carlos to oppose the project and predicted that the grassroots movement will continue to grow.

Another speaker asked why they plant is needed, since Sunrise Powerlink will soon be coming online with 1,000 MW of power.  He also voiced concerns about methane from the landfill. “What about a catstrophic model for fire, since it’s in brushland?” he asked. “How can you go forward with taxpayer money when up front you see such complete opposition?”

Solario responded that he understands the skepticism of some.  “We have the same skepticism…We put them through a meat grinder,” he assured.

Josan Feathers, a civil engineer, also cited wildfire danger and added, “It’s inappropriate to cite this near homes and schools…There are hazardous materials…the risk of transformers catching fire should be enough to say no to this in this fire-prone area.” She added, “SDG&E gets paid to build these facilities whether they are needed or not….it’s also a visual abomination.”

David Richardson, an elementary school teacher, said the area should be viewed as a “historical landscape” and that he uses the area to teach children about the Kumeyaay Indians history here.  He also was concerned about ambient lights at night.  “You have not yet heard the wrath that will come,” he told the CEC.

Another teacher said he worries about the impacts of pollutants on student athletes such as the cross country team and swim team members. He also worries about noise and said the site is very windy. “I can open up my classroom door and the wind has the door stand open.”

Rob Simpson, who has intervened in many other actions before the CEC, flew down from northern California to speak.  He encouraged opponents of the project to “keep organizing” and said that while 90% of projects get licensed, “a good amount don’t get built. “ Citizens can slow down the process and make it difficult for developers, he noted. 

“Get your City of Santee to intervene,” he recommended. He added that the real action is in jurisdictions with authority such as the City of San Diego on the zoning change, the air pollution district and the Environmental Protection Agency.  “Don’t let the City of San Diego rezone this project,” he advised.   

Santee resident Sybil Walker broke town in tears at the podium.   She called the project “a monster for this community” and predicted that if it is built “any hope that our housing could recover from this economy is shattered.” She, like many who spoke, voiced love of the Mission Trails Regional Park and felt this would despoil it.

Vicki Collin of Santee asked about earthquakes. “I haven’t heard anybody talk about that.”

A man who spoke called the process a “David and Goliath battle,” against Cogentrix and its parent company, Goldman Sachs.

Jamie McCoy recalled what the 2003 wildfires were like.  “There were fires all around Santee. We had one road out.  If there is an explosion at that site, how am I going to get out of there?”  she asked, her voice trembling.  “We all came here for the aesthetic affect…I moved to Santee because we had power lines below the ground.”

Patricia Murphy moved here from the Bay Area and offered a unique perspective.

“I was within a half mile of the San Bruno explosion in 2010,” said Murphy, adding that she remains traumatized by the memories. “I watched the fireballs raised 200 feet in the air. I was a first responder…the human suffering was immense.”  She said she is “shocked and aghast” at the rezoning proposal to allow the power plant, which she calls “insanity.” She also fears that noise would keep her from sleeping.     

Pat Hurley, a candidate for State Assembly, had this to say.  “We have to change the people who represent us and have people who aren’t in the pockets of developers.”

Jay Powell, who has intervened in a case before the Califiornia Public Utilities Commission, observed, “This has got to stop with the city, because this is open space.” Noting that designation was made decades ago, he said, “It needs to be honored and respected.”

Johnny Pappas, a resident of Escondido, which also has a peaker plant, observed that saving open space is important. “Citizens can’t afford five-star resorts that  Goldman Sachs executives go to,” he admonished.

Another man, who said he lost his life’s savings in the equity in his home, told the panel that “this group of people is too big to fail,” a veiled reference to the bailout of big financial institutions such as Cogentrix parent Goldman Sachs. To Cogentrix, he pledged, “We’re going to have a long relationship. We’re going to be looking at every legal thing that we can do to shut you down.”

An environmental lawyer who spoke said it is “impressive” to see a community “so angry and concerned.” He raised the issue of formaldehyde and toxic emissions, noting that the starting and stopping which occurs at peaker plants causes incomplete combustion. He said he believes estimates on the formaldehyde release, 2,500 a year, was far too low.

A surgical nurse said he works “all day with blood on my hands.” He voiced concern for the health of his young son, who will attend three schools ranging from 500 yards for a mile from the facility. “It’s a public health concern. It’s in the wrong place…We are fighting for our lives.”

Ziebart said Congentrix is working on options to mitigate some concerns, such as visual impacts. Three alternative sites have also been proposed, though the prospect of approvals on any appear highly questionable. 

Alternative A is on property owned by Sycamore landfill zoned heavy industrial, however the property is not available for lease or purchase, according to Cogentrix.  Alternative B is privately owned in San Diego, zoned residential, and can’t be used as a power plant because the land is proposed as mitigation for coastal disturbance for another project, by Cogentrix’ own admission. Alternative C is zoned residential but is farther from residences and the school, about 7,200 and 7,600 feet respectively.

View details on alternatives and more in section 31.1-31.3 here:

Congrentrix  has a three year option on the property, which was chosen due to proximity to power lines and natural gas lines.

Additional transmission lines would also need to be built that would connect up to the Carlton Hills substation, Ziebart indicated. 

Solario told the audience that while the CEC normally has five commissioners, currently two seats are vacant. “If you convince these three, you have a quorum,” he observed.  Two commissioners will be in charge of overseeing licensing of the Quail Brush Project: Karen Douglass and Carla Peterman. Douglas  has an environmental background and is a former chair, he noted. 

He disclosed that the high number of comments already received via emails, calls and letters convinced the CEC to hold the workshop—and additional ones are planned. 

“It’s very unusual for this to happen…all of us in one place at the same time,” the CEC representative said, adding that concerned citizens should “keep doing what you are doing,” and consider involvement “at the intervener level.”

For more information on the project, visit:

For information on opposition to the project, visit




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