Power Charge

TEP's greed will have it slicing through Southern Arizona, one way or another.

On this otherwise disputatious planet, a few images still spark universal disgust--lecherous priests, battered kids, dying gulls flopped across an oily beach. And smarmy corporate lawyers putting the screws to Joe Public.

Which brings us into the world of Tucson Electric Power Co., more lovingly known as "The Energy People."

In their hell-bent drive to string 345-kilovolt power lines from Sahuarita to Nogales, The Energy People are pulling out all the stops. Sometimes, this means briefly dropping their affable, carefully honed public image to reveal the profit-hungry beast snarling within.

It is not pretty. It is not the kindly corporate suit who bought our ballpark's name. It is the nasty telephone voice that demands cash and threatens darkness.

Joining TEP in this venture is punier but no less paradoxical Citizens Energy Services, which currently provides the juice for Nogales and surrounding areas.

Citizens doesn't generate its own power for Nogales, but instead brings electricity along a single 55-mile, 115-kilovolt line from the north. After years of lousy reliability, the utility is under an Arizona Corporation Commission order to have at least one more 115-kilovolt line in place by late 2003. Enter TEP, who sees the sizzling opportunity to string a full-strength, much more intrusive 345-kilovolt line down to the border, thereby making millions selling power to Mexico, and rescuing flickering Nogales at the same time.

Helping Nogales is a big brownie point to win state approval. But everyone knows tapping into Mexico is the real plum.

TEP's preferred route would place power lines atop 150-foot towers running far to the west of Green Valley, down among the beautiful ridges and canyons of the Coronado National Forest, alongside the equally lovely Pajarita Wilderness.

The utility's second choice would run lines roughly parallel to Interstate 19, and quite near Green Valley, Amado and Tubac.

For TEP the competing routes are devilishly clever, pitting the folks of Green Valley and Tubac--understandably opposed to ugly power lines nearly overhead--against environmentalists equally repulsed by the notion of huge transmission towers scarring the Coronado.

At the same time, TEP has a leg up on the Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, which in the late '90s proposed stringing similar lines through the Sonoita-Patagonia area to Mexico. That proposal, now on hold, requires the acquiescence of private land owners. Unlike TEP, the New Mexico company lacks an Arizona territory it's legally obligated to serve. This means PNM also lacks the power of eminent domain.

TEP does have that power, but apparently prefers hedging its bet with the U.S. Forest Service. This strategy has gained new heft under the anti-environment George W. Bush administration.

Which brings us back to lawyers. Among the first steps in such an undertaking are public hearings before the state's Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee. That committee had two of three required meetings last week in Nogales. The third is scheduled for today in Phoenix. The meetings are meant to gather public opinion, and evidence about environmental impacts of the project. They are conducted like a court of law, with testimony and questioning under oath.

Following these hearings, a majority of committee members will either reject the project, or grant approval in the form of a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility. The recommendation is forwarded to the Corporation Commission, which then makes a final decision in this very high-stakes affair.

The rambling Super 8 Motel in Nogales was still mostly quiet when Larry Lucero wheeled his big black sport utility vehicle into the parking lot on a cool Monday morning. As TEP's public relations point-man for this project, it's Lucero's job to put the company's spin-machine in motion. Also favoring tailored black suits, and wire-rimmed glasses, the mustachioed Lucero is a disquieting blend of Emiliano Zapata and a North Jersey clean-up man.

His sidekick, fellow TEP spokesman Bill Norman, takes a different approach. Although Norman likewise cruises the company domain in a strapping, late-model sports machine, today he's gussied up like an aging Howdy Doody in cowboy boots, jeans and a manly leather vest. But make no mistake--this is calculated rusticity. Norman will spend his time inconspicuously among an audience largely comprised of rural folk, ranchers and such.

That audience appears to oppose unanimously both of the proposed routes, mostly for the same reason: they would destroy the landscape just to satisfy TEP shareholders. The only split comes in whether the high-voltage line would deface their own property, remote ranchland or wilderness habitat. Still, most seem resigned that, one way or another, TEP will get what it wants.

Lucero spent all of Monday poker-faced, watching from behind a team of lawyers as residents rambled up to the microphone to decry TEP's plans, and Norman scribbled occasional notes.

By Tuesday, Norman had disappeared. But Lucero was still on the beat. Public comment had been gathered, and testimony for and against the plan was being given by "intervenors," i.e. concerned neighbors, industry honchos and government types who'd earlier signed up for a place at the table.

Slowly, subtly, the lawyers--the real meat behind Lucero's potatoes--were sharpening their swords.

One of the intervenors called on Dale Devick, a white-haired, non-assuming Tubac retiree who opposes the route slicing practically through his backyard. To highlight his neighborhood's dismay, Devick had displayed pictures of affected homes on an easel at the front of the room.

The display was being entered into the record, as Devick described the area and the people who live there. Listening intently was Michael Grant, an attorney for Citizens. Finally, peering smugly over reading glasses low on his nose, and in a resonant and somewhat sinister voice (the kind that might, say, remind the disturbed to take their lithium), Grant began methodically dismembering Devick's testimony.

Referring to a vague map TEP had displayed before the committee, Grant asked Devick to point out exactly where the homes are situated in regards to the proposed route along I-19.

He kept prodding the retiree--by now a bit shaky--to admit that, no, these homes weren't exactly right under the route, but only nearby. And heck, since they're only in the area of massive power lines, why the big fuss?

"I think I would object to the exhibit in terms of the way it was described," Grant then told Laurie Woodall, an assistant Arizona Attorney General who chairs the siting committing, "since the houses are not on the proposed alternate route."

"Is that the only basis of your objection?" Woodall asked, irritated.

"That is true," Grant barely replied, when Woodall cut him off with a snippy "Overruled." The audience snickered at the rebuke, and Devick bee-lined for his seat.

Grant leaned back and stoically removed the reading glasses.

TEP's hired legal gun, Ray Heyman, tried his own hand at legal dissection following the testimony of Dr. Emilio Falco, a Whipple Observatory astronomer who's building a house near the I-19 route. Throughout the meeting, Falco, an official intervenor, had been quite articulate in skewering the project, saying he moved from the East Coast to Southern Arizona "just to get away from this sort of thing."

Throughout the hearings, TEP ballyhooed its great efforts to parley with affected residents. Falco felt otherwise, saying his own e-mail correspondences with Lucero ended abruptly, apparently when his opposition to the power lines became obvious.

Falco's remarks contradicted earlier TEP testimony that those correspondences had stopped for legal reasons, after Falco registered as an intervenor.

"I would like to point out that the last e-mail I received ... was March 16," the astronomer said. "That precedes by a month my intervenor status." He paused. "Mr. Lucero did send me (another) e-mail. I think his last one was April 13. So that also precedes my status as an intervenor. I think that reflects on how well TEP has actually communicated with the public."

Heyman leaned into the microphone. "Mr. Falco, I have here a copy of your notice for a motion to intervene, which is dated April 12, 2001. Is that correct?"

"I believe that's correct," Falco replied.

"And you indicated that the last communication you had with Mr. Lucero was April 13?" .

Brief silence. "Yes, I believe that is correct," Falco said, his voice faltering.

"Thank-you, no further questions," Heyman said, obviously rather pleased with himself. Behind him, a fleeting smirk flashed across Lucero's face.

Outside after the meeting, Falco was asked about the questionable April 13 e-mail.

"Actually, Larry Lucero only sent me that April 13 e-mail by mistake," Falco said. "It was supposed to go to Ed Beck, TEP's transmission planning supervisor.

"I can read it to you," he continued, whipping out a copy of the on-line note. "Mr. Lucero writes 'This individual is not on the Santa Cruz County Energy Commission, as I thought previously. Have you responded to these questions?'"

Heyman and Grant stood chatting in a far corner, as Falco carefully folded the e-mail and placed it in his bag.

Grant lit up a cigarette, and blew the smoke above Heyman's head with a prolonged sigh.

Sure it's a dirty job. But hey, somebody's gotta do it.

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