Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Power plant opponents try to rally support

Express Staff Writer

Southern Idaho residents' interest in the coal-fired power plant proposed for Jerome County continues to grow, as does attendance at meetings being held throughout the region.

"I'm here to gain information," said Gooding resident Mary Condie at a public meeting about the plan last week. "I'm already against it. But this (meeting) is making me more convinced we don't want it."

Sempra Generation hopes to build a $1.4 billion, 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant eight miles southeast of Shoshone, and about nine miles northeast of neighboring Jerome.

Company officials say the project would contribute millions of dollars in tax revenue to Jerome County and would create nearly 100 permanent jobs.

The company is in the initial stages of a multi-year permitting process.

More than 90 people turned out for a meeting in Shoshone Wednesday, Jan. 4, while another 80 attended a meeting the following night in nearby Gooding.

The meetings were organized by delegates from Legislative District 25, which includes Blaine County, and the Coalition for Healthy Idaho Communities.

Sempra representatives were not invited to either session, to the dismay of some attendees.

"I came to gather information," said Lincoln County Commissioner Lawrence Calkins. So, "I was disappointed they wasn't here."

Calkins, who attended the Shoshone meeting with fellow Lincoln County commissioners Jerry Nance and Rusty Parker, was reserving judgement on the power plant.

"I think there's a need for power in the future, but I don't know if this is the answer," he said.

Although the project will be approved or denied by Jerome County commissioners, Nance said any decisions put before Lincoln County commissioners will be made with voters' wishes in mind.

"What the commission will do is what constituents want," Nance said. "We'll try to be fair about both sides."

The fact that one county's commissioners have sole authority to decide such a massive project is unfair, said Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

"This state stands alone as being the only state in the West that does not have a coal-fired power plant," he said. "In the West, Idaho and Wyoming are the only states that don't have a siting committee."

Stennett has made two unsuccessful attempts to form a state siting committee, once during the last legislative session and again with a summer interim committee.

The proposed committee would comprise various state agencies and governing bodies to oversee the siting of power plants.

Stennett and siting committee supporters maintain that the effects of power plants go far beyond the borders of the county in which they are located. Currently, county commissioners have sole authority of approval once air-quality and water permits are secured.

"The Jerome County commissioners are not prepared to make this kind of decision, nor should they be able to," Stennett told the Shoshone gathering. "The process is inadequate. It's an enormous operation and it will change the life we've enjoyed in this community forever. Let's have a bill that lets Idaho citizens have some ownership in this."

Other presenters in Shoshone were retired Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, who served 22 years on the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, Twin Falls engineer Bill Block and retired power plant operator Joe Ruschetti.

The presenters noted that because the proposed plant is a merchant power plant and the power will be sold on the open market, Sempra's project would not be subject to review by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

"They don't even have to stop in and say hello to the PUC," Block said.

Despite support in many circles for the project and its promise of tax revenue and jobs, opponents say the tide is turning in their favor.

"(Sempra) assumed they were going to run into some pretty easy picking here in Southern Idaho," Noh said. "I think it would be wrong to assume this is a futile effort. It isn't."

Stennett said he'll introduce another siting bill during this year's legislative session, which began Monday, and will float the idea of a moratorium on power plants.

"Nobody wants to be a part of this because nobody wants to be told what to do," Stennett said. But, "I'm not going to take no on this issue, nor are any members of this delegation."

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