Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Jerome County approves power plant research tower

Sempra's coal-fired plant proposal clears first hurdle

Express Staff Writer

South central Idaho is set to learn more about its air quality and weather, just as debate about a proposed coal-fired power plant is heating up in Jerome County and the surrounding region.

The Jerome County Planning and Zoning Commission approved Monday night a special use permit for Sempra Generation to erect a meteorological tower to gather data for a pending application to build a 600-megawatt power plant northeast of Jerome.

Approval for the weather station did not come easily, however, as the commission struggled with the long-term impact of their decision and how to approach the power-plant debate in the coming months.

An initial motion to table the application until the commission could gather more information about what meteorological studies should include failed.

"For their application, they have met our ordinance," acknowledged Commissioner Doug Suter, who made the initial motion that failed. Suter was the lone opponent to the subsequent motion that passed 6-1.

The commission approved the special use permit for the weather tower with a condition that the applicant hires an independent consultant to verify the data to be submitted to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for approving air quality permits for power plants.

"I feel I would like to have more information on what is coming later," Suter said, concerned that the commission gets off on the right foot with review of the proposed power plant. "I'd like to do more research."

Commissioner Bob Wright agreed with Suter, explaining that he would like to know more about what is going to be tested. However, Commission Chairman Jack Nelsen said what should be tested was the purview of the DEQ and missteps could occur if the commission of laypersons attempts to second-guess requirements.

Sempra will collect information about precipitation, wind speed and temperature. Instruments will also monitor the existing level of air pollutants related to respiratory illness and environmental degradation, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and ozone.

"They know we have sweet air and water," said Darrell Kersey, owner of Kersey Racing Stables, who was present at the hearing. "If that plant goes in, I'm selling."

Commissioners acknowledged that they are facing a steep learning curve in terms of environmental and health impacts of a coal-fired power plant in the region. They are also struggling with how to handle public comment in the coming months. Written comments submitted just for the weather station application were substantial and exposed problems with the county ordinance governing written testimony.

At the first hearing about the weather station permit two weeks ago, Jerome County resident Lee Halper submitted evidence about the health and environmental impacts of coal-fired plants, including data about radiation contamination and mercury and ammonia pollution. However, Nelsen initially rejected the submission because it was made in violation of county ordinance, which states that written comment must be submitted seven days in advance of a hearing, if it is more than a single page.

Following the commission's decision to approve the weather station application, the P&Z discussed how to get up to speed for future debate on the issue when the tough questions about whether to approve or deny the power plant itself come to the table.

Planning Administrator Art Brown phoned the county attorney at home to inform him that commissioners would like to have his presence at future meetings to guide them in due process when such high-profile applications are on the agenda. Commissioner Sam Harris pointed out that as more public attention is paid to future permit applications for the proposed plant, Brown's office could become flooded with last-minute e-mails.

When Halper's evidence was submitted into the record Monday, following an executive session discussing the matter of how his request should be handled, Sempra representatives were given an opportunity to review the submission and chose not to comment on it because the evidence did not pertain to the meteorological application.

"I fought this 30 years ago at the Pioneer Plant in Bliss," said Karen Arkoosh, of Gooding, with the Coalition for Healthy Idaho Communities, a group interested in ensuring that information about potential health risks be included in the power plant application review. She and other county residents voiced concern outside Monday's hearing that coal-fired power plants seem to be gaining ground in a political climate where laws protecting people from the regional environmental and social impacts of such a plant have slipped away.

"President Bush's Clear Skies legislation is not very clear," Arkoosh said.

Brown said as the commission moves ahead with further review of subsequent power plant permit applications it will get more information, including that from a DEQ work session about how air quality permits are issued and what is emitted by coal-fired power plants.

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