One down, one to go

City officials challenge Mirant power plant pollution as PG&E finally shutters its controversial Hunters Point facility
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

As the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. prepared to finally shut down its Hunters Point power plant May 15, environmentalists were gearing up for another task pressuring the Mirant Corp. to replace its 40-year-old, pollution-spewing cooling system near Potrero Hill. The two plants have been blamed for a wide variety of health problems in the southeast part of San Francisco.

Community groups aren't the only ones decrying the aging facility. Sup. Sophie Maxwell, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, and San Francisco Public Utility Commission general manager Susan Leal all plan to appear at the May 10 Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting to call on Mirant to update the cooling system of its Potrero Unit 3 with more modern technology.

Critics claim the current unit absorbs nearby polluted sediment through its cooling system and discharges it into Bay waters.

The water board will be considering whether to green-light a discharge permit drafted by its staff. But the RWQCB staff proposal, according to Hererra spokesperson Matt Dorsey, is really an extension of a permit Mirant was granted all the way back in 1994. The permit was extended by the water board in 1999 and again in 2004, meaning that the permit has fallen "out of compliance with current environmental standards," Dorsey said.

SF-based Communities for a Better Environment says the permit does not take into account new technologies that would eliminate the need to suck up Bay water for cooling purposes. If Mirant does not switch to the alternative "upland cooling," CBE says, the plant should be closed.

"We're hoping for there to be as big a turnout as we can get," CBE's Greg Karras said in a phone interview. "This is the most important issue for the community's goals on the existing Potrero plant. This plant's ancient cooling technology is known to kill hundreds of millions of larval fish every year and poison the fish people rely on for food."

The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution April 25 asking the water board to reject the current draft discharge permit and adopt an alternative "community permit" that includes the requirement of a new cooling system.

Lila Tang, chief of the wastewater division of the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, said the water board needs more time to "fully assess and analyze alternatives for compliance" before addressing new pollution rules that were passed in 2004. But she insisted that the current draft permit includes updated toxicity monitoring requirements and imposes discharge limits on copper and mercury concentrations where such requirements haven't previously existed.

The water board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 10 at 9:00 a.m. at 1515 Clay St. in Oakland (near the 12th Street Oakland City Center BART station). The deadline for submitting written remarks has passed, but interested parties can still show up at the meeting to make a public comment. Call the water board at (510) 622-2300 for more information.

The Mirant plant has become the new target for environmentalists now that the Hunters Point plant is finally closing. PG&E announced in late April that the long-awaited closure of the plant would finally be completed by May 15. Energy production was transferred to another transmission line April 29. Construction of the new transmission line began in January 2005, but BayviewHunters Point residents have waited for nearly a decade to see the old plant closed as concerns over widespread asthma symptoms in the area grew.

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