Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Utility's first step should stir public opposition

Call it what you will—a camel's nose under the tent, one step too far, a straw in the wind, a foot in the door—the Jerome County Planning and Zoning Commission's approval Monday night of a meteorological tower for Sempra Generation to study wind and air quality is a bad omen.

The California electric utility has gained a foothold in hopes of building a coal-powered 600-megwatt generating plant to provide power for consumers far from Idaho, while requiring Idaho to assume the burdens of a smokestack plant.

The lone holdout in the 6-1 vote, Commissioner Doug Suter, said a mouthful and revealed some prescience when he commented, "I feel I would like to have more information on what is coming later."

Indeed. What conceivably could come later is hidden behind glowing talk of jobs and tax revenues for Jerome County. The reality of what could come is an industrial plant whose demands on air and water quality and on the lives of Jerome residents in its immediate surroundings and downwind should concern every resident.

If the proposed Sempra plant were a nuclear facility, Jerome County would be crawling with regulators and inspectors not only from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, but also federal nuclear scientists, national security experts and environmental inspectors and would face years of study.

But siting the plant as it now stands rests essentially in the hands of Jerome County's three-person County Commission, which has limited resources for dealing with the blandishments of utility executives.

As we and others have argued, siting a facility with such wide-ranging impact and implications should be the purview of the state, which has far more resources to conduct meaningful health and scientific studies.

Jerome residents have the better part of another year to continue pressing for answers and expressing their concerns before the County Commission takes up the matter.

One simple and yet basic question that hasn't been asked and answered with complete satisfaction is: Why Jerome County for an electric generating plant supplying power to states distant from its location?

Is Jerome County considered some sort of backwater rural pushover for the big city utility?

Although a single plant might seem a small element in the total scheme of things, Jerome County cannot shrug off efforts by governors of Northwestern states to control air pollutants that lead to global warming.

The Bush administration has reneged on a promise to reduce smokestack emissions, and virtually given a green light to plants to foul the air.

Jerome County isn't obliged to offer itself as a new source for adding to the planet's foul air.

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