Calling It What It Is: Environmental Racism


root - Posted on 22 April 2002

Communities Organize Against Environmental Racism and
the Potrero Hill Power Plant Expansion

by Gretchen Hildebran/PNN

The climb up to the Potrero Neighborhood House begins at 17th Street but really kicks in just as I pass the newly renamed Enola D. Maxwell Middle School for the Arts. Late and impatient for the bus, I am breathing hard as I get to the top of the hill. My efforts are rewarded by a wide vista of San Francisco and its Bay. Inside the House, the distant bayshore is perfectly framed by the windows on the far wall of the theater. Clear blue skies have emerged behind the morning's grayness and in the distance, at the foot of the hill, I see a large white plume of smoke rise from the power plant into the perfect sky.

Despite clear-looking skies, most residents of Hunter's Point and Potrero Hill have suffered health problems caused by pollution from the aging power plants in their communities. Last Saturday, a community meeting was held at the Neighborhood House to discuss the plants. I met Lisa Watts, who has been living in Hunter's Point for thirteen years. Her motivation for coming to discuss the plans of the Mirant corporation to expand the Potrero Hill plant was basic: "I have asthma, my daughter has asthma. People
are getting sick, we get headaches."

While the outdated and toxic Hunter's Point plant still operates, Mirant has applied for a permit to expand the Potrero Hill Power Plant from its current 363 megawatt output to massive 903 megawatt capacity. This would make it the largest power plant located closest to the highest density of people in the state of California. And it is no accident that the communities located near both of San Francisco's power plants are 80% people of color and have the highest rates of poverty in the city.

Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) called the morning meeting in order to educate the public about the state process that will decide the fate of Mirant's proposed expansion. Greg Karras, a trim and confident researcher for CBE, presented and refuted
the three main arguments that Mirant is using to justify the expansion:

1. If they build a new bigger plant, it would then be possible to shut down the deadly Hunter's Point Plant.
2. San Francisco HAS to build a bigger plant to avoid power shortages like those of the past year.
3. The environmental costs of the expanded plant are "acceptable" due to the need for more power.

These three points are serving Mirant well, especially after the energy shortages and scandals of the last year. However, CBE and communities living near the power plants are organizing to show that San Francisco can meet its power demands without the expansion. In fact, the CBE's report "Power and Justice" proves that we have the means to reduce our city's dependency on polluting generators altogether.

The closure of the Hunter's Point plant is being held out as the proverbial carrot to the communities that have been suffering outrageous rates of asthma, cancer, diabetes and heart attacks, all of which have been related to the pollutants produced by the plant.
The Independent System Operator, a state agency that controls plant operation, has refused to shut this plant down despite enormous community opposition. According to Karras, on the state level there is "no process right now for shutting it down." Mirant's promise of eliminating one polluting plant in exchange for another is only capitalizing on the community campaigns that are working for this closure. CBE's report demonstrates that San Francisco could shut down the Hunter's Point plant and still meet its peak power demands without the expansion. The answer, as Karras explained, lies in "diversification of sources." CBE's plan outlines several demand scenarios and maps out a variety of energy sources to meet even peak power demand. These all rely on available technology such as solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, and fuel cells. Some alternative sources, such as burning gases produced by sewage, are already being planned for the city. These options would considerably reduce San Francisco's use of plant power. Even in a worst-case scenario, the capacity of the current Potrero Hill plant would still be sufficient to meet peak demand.

If approved, the Potrero Hill plant expansion would operate for the next forty years, locking SF into more fossil fuel dependency, says Mike Thomas of CBE. Mirant is currently negotiating a "cost plus" contract with the state. This means that the plant would agree to always meet the city's demand for energy and the state would always cover the plant's losses when demand is low. The pressure would be on to rely on the massive output planned for the plant while ignoring potential renewable, responsible and clean energy sources. Meanwhile, the extra hundreds of megawatts produced by the plant could be sold in today's inflated energy market, guaranteeing a tidy profit for Mirant.

Residents who breathe in the direct results of plant emissions know why it is crucial to use them as little as possible. Eliza Strauss, a student intern at CBE, talked to me about how hard it is to convince people from other parts of the city that this issue is important. She goes to Urban High School, and explained that "most of the kids there are from Pacific Heights and Sea Cliff. This issue effects everybody, but a lot of people say, 'It's for those people over there and I don't have to experience it or think about it.'" Strauss lives in Bernal Heights and can see the plant from her bedroom window. She is working with CBE to get community groups involved in the fight against the expansion.

One component of the proposed plant that Bay Area groups are organizing around is the cooling system it would use. Approximately one-third of the Bay's water would cycle through the plant and be discharged as "thermal waste." This would wreck havoc on the Bay's ecosystems, killing half a billion fish larvae a year and adversely effecting fifteen Bay Area species. Although different cooling systems are possible, Mirant is insisting on water cooling, finding this kind of environmental destruction "acceptable". Now is the time for the city to review its options for power. The Board of Supervisors is putting together an energy plan, which, in accordance with a recent ballot measure, will map out clean and reliable sources of energy for San Francisco. Unfortunately, these will only be recommendations to the California Energy Commission (CEC) that makes the final decision on plant permits. While companies have been known to drop their plans due to community pressure, the CEC has never turned down an application.

The only time the community could impact this decision is during the CEC's hearings on the plant, which should be happening this spring. These communities are organizing to denounce the project. According to Lisa Watts, "People know what is going on." But the concerned middle-class white people at last Saturday's meeting didn't strike me as representative of these communities. I asked POOR staff writer and photographer Joseph Bolden, one of the few people of color who was at the meeting, what he thought of the turnout. "Most people are just trying to feed their kids, trying to survive. The people here must have some time to work on this." I brought up this issue with Mike Thomas of CBE. He acknowledged the importance of turning out the Potrero Hill and Hunter's Point communities. CBE is organizing people to come to the hearings. It is more direct and effective, he explained, "You can speak face to face with the commissioners who make the decision." That seems to be the best time to tell the state that the beautiful Potrero Hill views should not be accompanied by toxic wind and Bay destruction. The communities that suffer from these plants will continue to demand respect and safety until those sheltered from pollution's realities take notice. As CBE intern Strauss said, "People think you can just go from one place to another, give up your community and job and family to get away from something like this. People are afraid to call it what it is, it is just environmental racism."

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