Monday, December 01, 2008

City wants new energy plant built near airport, but aviation expertsand others say that could have disastrous consequences


November 23, 2008

The city of Carlsbad's fight to shift a proposed power plant away from the coast, where the owner wants to build it, to eastern Carlsbad faces a serious obstacle: airplanes.

CHARLIE NEUMAN / Union-Tribune
With the Encina Power Station's 400-foot-tall smokestack visible about four miles away, a small private plane came in for a landing at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. Hot exhaust from smokestacks at a power plant proposed for a site near the airport could cause turbulence for planes landing there.
The city's favored site, the Carlsbad Oaks North industrial park in eastern Carlsbad, is within a mile and a half of McClellan-Palomar Airport's runway, posing potential trouble for air navigation. And one of Carlsbad's backup sites, the city's police and fire safety center, is even closer.

Building a power plant near an airport can be dangerous because the stacks would stand 140 feet tall, creating a physical and visual hazard for aircraft. Also, hot exhaust emanating from the stacks could cause turbulence for planes landing at the airport.

“Both of those areas are in the arrival area of light aircraft, where they're descending,” said Ron Cozad, an attorney and regional vice president of the California Pilots Association. “That would be disastrous. It couldn't be done.”


Power plant sites
There have been 10 accidents since 2000 involving aircraft taking off or landing at McClellan-Palomar Airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Five were fatal crashes that killed a total of 13 people, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined probable causes in six of the 10 accidents. All were the result of pilot error, and weather was a factor in three, Gregor said.

NRG Energy, which owns and operates the 54-year-old, oceanfront Encina Power Station, has applied to the California Energy Commission to build a 540-megawatt plant on its coastal property west of Interstate 5 on the south shore of Agua Hedionda Lagoon. It hopes to have the plant operating by 2011.

The city wants any power plant moved off the coast to an inland location in Carlsbad.

“It all comes down to we don't think the coastline is an appropriate site,” said Joe Garuba, the city's municipal projects manager. “All we're trying to do is point out there's a whole lot of sites that are better than the coast.”

City officials have said the land, with an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean, is prime property for a hotel and other developments that would serve the public.

The California Energy Commission – not the city – has authority over issuing permits for power plants. The city can question NRG's data and comment during the application process.

City officials offered two alternative sites – Carlsbad Oaks North and Maerkle Reservoir in the city's northeast – but have since said the reservoir is off the table because it is too close to the Ocean Hills senior community in Oceanside.

Carlsbad Oaks North is a 400-acre business park north of Faraday Avenue and west of Melrose Avenue that is seeking tenants.  NRG has rejected both sites for various reasons.

Tim Hemig, NRG's project manager for the proposed power plant, says the business park falls within a proposed safety zone for the airport where development is limited. The purpose of the zone is to ensure that structures around an airport don't pose hazards to airplanes and people on the ground.  “There's a black-and-white restriction that says no power plant can be sited in (the safety zone),” Hemig said.

Sandi Sawa, manager of airport planning for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which is establishing safety zones around airports, said McClellan-Palomar's zone has not been adopted, so it is not black and white.  “Under current plans, there's no reason a power plant couldn't be allowed there,” Sawa said.

A power plant would have to be approved by the FAA and the California Department of Transportation's aeronautics division, she said.  Gregor said developers hoping to build near airports must apply to the FAA, which determines whether a structure's height would interfere with air navigation.

The FAA has no authority to block developments, but its recommendation carries weight with other agencies that can, he said.  Caltrans' aeronautics division has such authority.  “We may look at it and suggest against it ... if we think it creates a hazard,” said Phillip Miller of Caltrans' aeronautics division.  Miller said the agency would comment on the proposal to the California Energy Commission.

When Caltrans declared that a 180-foot building under construction in Kearny Mesa endangered airplanes flying into Montgomery Field, San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre used that as ammunition to force the developer, Sunroad Enterprises, to shave 20 feet off the building's height last year.

NRG points to the California Energy Commission's recent rejection of a proposed power plant in the San Francisco Bay Area, called Eastshore Energy Center, as an example of why it doesn't want to pursue the Carlsbad Oaks North location.  The commission found that hot exhaust from the proposed plant would have been hazardous to planes landing at nearby Hayward Executive Airport.

Carol Gold, vice president of the California Pilots Association, said that because of the heavy air traffic around Hayward – Oakland International Airport is to the north and San Francisco International to the west – planes have limited airspace. Any attempt to go around the power plant would have forced them into another airport's traffic pattern.  “You can't avoid it by flying above,” Gold said.

Hemig said NRG has determined that a plume from its power plant could go as high as 1,700 feet, and planes fly at a lower altitude near the Carlsbad Oaks North industrial park, creating a hazard.  Garuba said the energy commission's Eastshore Energy Center ruling doesn't apply to Carlsbad.  He said another, larger power plant was approved within a mile of Eastshore and that pilots had to avoid the plant. That left no other space for airplanes to go if Eastshore was built.  “They're boxed in,” which is not the case with McClellan-Palomar Airport, Garuba said.

Peter Drinkwater, director of airports for San Diego County, which owns and operates McClellan-Palomar, said a new power plant near the airport would require close scrutiny.  “One thing for certain is if something gets built and it affects the flight path, then one thing that can mitigate (it) is a change in the flight path or pattern, or the approaches,” Drinkwater said. “But those things obviously cause other problems.”

Some residents who live near the airport complain that planes fly over their homes, and the airport tells pilots to avoid residences to minimize the noise. Many residents say that doesn't take care of the problem.  Garuba said the city contacted the FAA this year about aviation issues regarding a proposed power plant.  “That was one of the first things we did, and ruled out stuff” based on that contact, Garuba said.  He said there is enough space around Carlsbad Oaks North to mitigate the possible impacts.

Cozad, of the pilots association, said he doesn't see how the city's chosen site can get off the ground.  “This is a very scary issue,” he said. “You just don't put a power plant at the arrival end of an airport.”

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