San Francisco scores victory in Mirant settlement agreement to shut down plant

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By Rebecca Bowe and Cecile Lepage

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The Guardian's rooftop view of the Potrero power plant.

“I know that there are many people who doubted that this day would ever come, but I’m happy to report that it finally has,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced at a press conference at City Hall this morning.

Herrera was referring to an agreement between the City and County of San Francisco and Mirant Potrero, LLC to shut down of the polluting Potrero Power Plant no later than December 31, 2010. Freshly signed, photocopied and distributed, the settlement agreement represented a major victory for the city attorney and San Francisco elected officials, who’ve been railing against the hazardous effects of the 40-year old gas-fired facility for years.

“Despite the fact that we have over the years been involved in policy debates with Mirant Corporation and litigation … over the last decade, I’m happy to report that they have stepped up as a partner and have committed themselves to working alongside the city and county as we make sure that we get that power plant closed by the end of 2010,” Herrera said.

In addition to requiring the shutdown, the agreement requires Mirant to pay the city $1 million to be put toward addressing pediatric asthma, neighborhood beautification projects and other programs that would be beneficial to the surrounding community. In exchange, the city agrees to drop a lawsuit it filed in April to force Mirant to comply with laws requiring seismic upgrades to unreinforced masonry buildings on the power plant site.

Residents living in the San Francisco’s Southeast sector and Bayview Hunter’s Point, where asthma rates are higher on average, have borne the brunt of the Potrero Power Plant’s toxic emissions.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents the neighborhoods that are adversely affected by Mirant pollution. “Our community [has] some of the highest rates of asthma, the highest rates of cancer. I think we’re going to have to continue this fight. This is one hurdle. Until they are completely shut down, we’re going to have to keep our eyes open and be vigilant. We have people’s health, we have babies being born in this community everyday -- and so we cannot keep our eye off the prize.”

The plant is currently required to operate because of a “reliability must run” contract with the California Independent System Operator, a body that oversees the state power grid and determines how much energy is needed for each city. According to the settlement document, the Cal ISO released a technical study in April 2009 indicating that the city would only be required to have a relatively minor 25 megawatts of in-city electric generation by next March, when the TransBay Cable project is completed. The TransBay Cable is an undersea power line that will connect the city’s electric grid to Mirant-owned power plants located near Pittsburg and Antioch.

The agreement rests on the understanding that the Cal ISO will eliminate the Potrero power plant’s “must run” status after the TransBay Cable has been installed. When asked to comment on this, Gregg Fishman, spokesman for the Cal-ISO, replied with this statement: “The ISO will continue to require local measures to be available at the level necessary to ensure that San Francisco reliability is consistent with that of other major metropolitan areas in California and the nation. We have not seen the settlement agreement and cannot comment on its provisions.” (We sent the Cal-ISO a link to the settlement agreement, but at press time, they hadn’t responded.)

As part of the agreement, the city agrees to prioritize a redevelopment plan for the power plant site, and will appoint senior staff from the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and Planning Department to work with the president of Mirant Potrero LLC on crafting a plan for the site after the plan is retired. Chip Little, a spokesperson from Mirant, told us that they aren’t planning anything in particular. “At this time, we have no redevelopment plans for the site,” he said.

Joshua Arce, executive director of environmental-justice organization Brightline Defense Project, characterized it as “David moving Goliath. We felt that as long as community and environmental support from Supervisors [Ross] Mirkarimi, [Michela] Alioto-Pier, [Chris] Daly, and [Tom] Ammiano remained strong we had a chance. When Mayor [Gavin] Newsom joined our coalition last summer to say ‘no’ to new power plants, the dominoes began to fall.”

Joe Boss, a member of the city’s power plant task force, was optimistic about the agreement. “We’re finally getting rid of the dinosaur,” he said.