Last spring, with 21 planned power plants--and a horde of transmission-line projects--seeking permits from the Arizona Corporation Commission, it seemed a foregone conclusion that we were racing toward a future as a power-producing ghetto.
But then in November, corporation commissioners did the unthinkable: They actually denied a permit for the Big Sandy, a 720-megawatt generator to be sited near Kingman. This was the first rejection of any power plant project in the commission's history. Big Sandy would have pumped massive amounts of water from an underground aquifer, and while "groundwater pumping itself was not the undoing of this project," Commissioner Marc Spitzer said after the vote, "we have to be sensitive to the fact that we live in a desert. ... We were offered inconclusive evidence on the total environmental impact of this project and that is why I voted the way I did."
Since then, activists fighting the power plant onslaught have held their breaths while the commission addresses a string of remaining projects, against the backdrop of a feckless energy industry that's been somewhat deflated by Enron's demise.
Among projects slated for ACC consideration is the Toltec Power Plant, a 2,000-megawatt monster slated for a desert stretch south of Casa Grande, and within eyeshot of Picacho Peak and the Ironwood Forest National Monument. If built, the plant could have an impact on bighorn sheep habitat in the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, and spew pollution throughout the area, says plant opponent Jon Shumaker.
The project passed the first hurdle when it obtained a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility from the Arizona Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee in November. That decision has been forwarded to the ACC for a final decision, expected later this month.
According to Heather Murphy, spokesperson for the ACC, the Line Siting Committee placed several requirements on the project to address environmental concerns, including severe ground subsidence in the area where the plant would be built. "There were 22 conditions tacked on to the certificate," Murphy says, "including subsidence."
But Shumaker, an Arizona City resident who's been fighting Toltec for more than a year, says "many of the modifications may not even be constitutional, so they could be challenged in court" by the project owner, Scottsdale-based Southwestern Power Group.
In particular, Shumaker calls the ACC's subsidence condition "a crock. The thing [the company] agreed to was to set up a monitoring program. There's been very little basic geophysical work done on the property to find out what the extent of subsidence and fissuring is out there. And there's nothing compelling [Southwestern] to do that."
Meanwhile, Tucson Electric Power won the first round in its plan to run a 345,000-volt transmission line to the Sonoran burg of Santa Ana, when it received ACC approval for its project in early January over the strong protests of area residents.
If completed, the project would place 150-foot towers through the environmentally sensitive Coronado National Forest, and across beautiful Sycamore Canyon, considered a Southern Arizona showpiece.
TEP's proposal is competing with Public Service Co. of New Mexico, which hopes to build a power line from a switchyard south of Phoenix to the Mexican border.
The TEP line would also connect to Nogales, Ariz., fulfilling a mandate by the Corporation Commission that Citizens Utilities upgrade its service to that community by December 2003.
As has become their habit, TEP officials refused to return repeated phone calls from the Tucson Weekly concerning the project.
But again, Heather Murphy says the ACC took great efforts to reduce environmental impacts by the power lines, including using single poles instead of the unsightly transmission towers, except in spots where the "monopoles would do great harm to the environment" because they must be sunk deeply into the ground.
Opponents of the project say the ACC's approval only of the so-called "Western Route," one of three alternatives that TEP originally proposed, was obviously a big disappointment to the company. "They really wanted the central route, which would have gone along I-19," says area activist Ellie Kurtz. "I don't think they counted on this outcome, and I don't think they were happy about it."
It's not hard to see why. Given its extensive incursion into the Coronado Forest, the route will undergo much greater scrutiny under the National Environmental Protection Act. That law requires a thorough inventory of impacts on forest habitat, threatened wildlife and numerous archaeological sites in the area.
The time-consuming process, to produce what's called an Environmental Impact Statement, also allows more opponents to circle their wagons. There have been rumblings that the Tohono O'dham Tribe is gearing up to oppose the project, as well as Empire Machinery, a huge Caterpillar dealership located on South Nogales Highway, near where the route originates. The Tucson Weekly was unable to confirm those reports at press time.
Meanwhile, longtime project opponents such as Marshall Magruder call the plan a disaster. "It is incompetent, incompatible and inconsistent with the needs of the citizens of Santa Cruz and Pima counties," says the area resident. "It should at least be minimally consistent with environmental standards, and it's not."
Those standards will be put to the test, with a draft EIS expected in March. But again, this timetable remains unconfirmed, and is constrained only by the ACC order regarding Nogales' 2003 electricity upgrade.
Jerry Conner is overseeing the project for Coronado National Forest. He says the environmental statement will address impacts upon "five factors, including soil, water, air, wildlife and vegetation."
Still, Conner says a date for release of that draft report is uncertain. "Environmental consulting firms working for TEP and PNM are not sharing their timetables with us."
But the first blow against the Coronado has already fallen, says Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. When the ACC approved the Western Route, "they really blew off the environmental concerns in a big way. They certainly didn't address the greater concerns that if this line is built, it clearly rips the heart out of the largest remaining roadless area near Tucson."