Packaged in an organized, polite panel discussion, two contrasting scenarios were presented Friday to the public regarding the effects of a coal-fired power plant proposed for Jerome County.
In one view, a community receives millions of dollars in tax revenue, hundreds of people find good-paying jobs and the region benefits with a stable supply of cheap energy.
In the other, the same community is slowly poisoned by the plant's toxic emissions, while the standard of living is further lowered by degraded land values.
Approximately 200 people attended the panel discussion Friday, Sept. 30, at the Jerome High School auditorium. The event was sponsored by the Theta chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a professional teachers' organization.
Four panelists—two pro, two con—summed up their opinions on San Diego-based Sempra Generation's proposal to build a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant about nine miles northeast of Jerome. Sempra, operating in Idaho under a special-purpose subsidiary called Idaho Valley LLC, hopes to have the $1.4 billion plant operating by 2011.
"What we're proposing is a new generation of coal-fired power plant," said project manager Bruce McCulloch. "This is a very large project and, as such, has significant economic benefits, not only for Jerome County but for the entire area."
"Burning millions of tons of coal each year will produce a staggering amount of waste, (which) will go into our aquifer," countered panelist Joseph Ruschetti.
Sempra representatives say the state stands to receive $25 million in sales tax during construction. Additionally, they say, the plant would provide $18 million per year in property tax and state tax revenues.
"There will be a lot better opportunities for your educational institutions," McCulloch said. "We know how hard it is to fund schools."
McCulloch said the latest technology would be used to minimize health impacts. Douglas Smith, an environmental scientist with Sempra, added that governmental regulations will ensure the public's health and safety.
Ruschetti, who grew up around power plants and worked in the power generation and healthcare industries, said no matter how many controls are in place, the power plant will contribute a dangerous cocktail of emissions to the air.
"What you're seeing here is choice, legacy and opportunity," he said. "Your choice is whether or not you feel a coal-fired power plant in Jerome County and the Magic Valley are good for you and good for future families."
He said no amount of tax revenue is worth the power plant's other products: sulfur dioxide, which creates acid rain, and nitrous oxide, which forms an unhealthful brown smog.
"The (Idaho Department of Environmental Quality) will allow thousands of tons of these pollutants into the air each year," Ruschetti said. Coupled with tons of mercury, he said, "It's enough to pollute every body of water in the Magic Valley, eventually, and beyond."
Further, there are no relevant landfill regulations and the plant's toxins could be released into the ground, ending up in the aquifer, he said.
Also speaking against the plant was Dr. James Irwin, of Jerome.
"As a physician, I stand to see economic benefit," he said. "It's not a benefit I care to see, (to have) more patients who are sicker."
He said Idaho is under five advisories for elevated mercury levels in fish, and that the federal government's public health policies are not stringent enough.
"The Environmental Protection Agency dramatically weakened its standards for mercury emissions," he said. "A toxic window of opportunity has been opened for these plants. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest mercury polluter in the U.S."
"This is a limited liability corporation that will be gone in 30 years," he added. "However, we will be left with the toxic waste over our aquifer essentially forever."
Sempra representatives cautioned people do to their own research.
"A lot of statistics our opponents are providing are from older plants ... and do not apply to this project," McCulloch said. "A lot of what you're hearing tonight is just not true."
He added that the landfill would be lined and poses no threat to groundwater.
"Government agencies and the DEQ are up to the moment on these issues," Smith said. "They know what the mercury level is and I think they'll do a good job making sure you're protected."
He said federal controls are bolstered by state standards that establish what is acceptable to locals.
"Our observation is that states are stepping up to the plate and making sure people do it right," he said.
During the last legislative session, however, Idaho lawmakers voted to amend existing law to clarify that certain air quality rules and permit requirements can be no more stringent than the federal government's.
Written questions from audience members followed the presentations.
One questioned where the power would go.
"There is not enough transmission capacity to go to California," McCulloch said. "This project will live or die by our ability to market this power to Idaho and the Pacific Northwest."
Another raised the water issue, but McCulloch told the audience that the plant's use of approximately 7,000 acre-feet per year of water wouldn't adversely impact Idaho's water supply.
"We're not taking anybody's water," he said. "We're using water for agricultural purposes and transferring it to a different use. There will be no impact to groundwater."
Countering that statement, Ruschetti said surface water will be negatively affected.
"This land will become ... a desert when water is taken off. We're going to lose value on a lot of agricultural land," he said, adding that the negative impact of that will void any tax revenue benefits.
Despite the discussion, some audience members' opinions remained unchanged.
"They're both trying to put on their own show," said Jerome resident Rick Allen. "I thought Sempra's was pretty weak. I don't trust our state. I don't trust the EPA. Federal standards are way too lax."
He said the issue is a divisive one for county residents. But he plans to keep himself informed and active throughout the process.
"We'll go to all the meetings. I'll keep an open mind," he said. "But they've got to convince us. Not the other way around."