The Mouse vs. the Megawatt 

Will a new Hayward power plant disrupt a fragile marsh?

From the observation deck of the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center, you can look out on a sweeping vista that stretches eastward from the San Francisco skyline and Mt. Tam to the brown hump of Mt. Diablo. But the landscape in the foreground is more extraordinary than it looks. Barn swallows twitter and circle overhead, and shades of brown, red, and green speckle the scrubby vegetation that stretches flat toward the bay. This is the Hayward Marsh, nearly 400 acres restored to the kind of wetlands that once covered the shores. If you tour the area with shoreline director Mark Taylor, he'll point out snowy egrets on the shores of small islands planted in an innovative five-basin marsh system that takes secondary treated wastewater through a series of ponds so that it is cleaned and mixed with saltwater before it enters the bay.

"They nest in bands of vegetation that were placed there for water quality and wildlife," he explains. If you're lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of the California least tern or the California clapper rail; the area plays host to 40,000 birds a year.

The shoreline here also includes a 27-acre preserve set aside for the tiny and endangered salt-marsh harvest mouse. Weighing less than a nickel, with a body about the size of your thumb, this mouse is the smallest rodent in the US. But now it, and the rest of the creatures that find refuge here, might be about to get a big new neighbor. Just yards from the marsh, next to a tidal channel where Taylor points out a turkey vulture recovering from a wing injury and a mallard flashing a bright violet band of color, there could be a 600-megawatt, natural-gas-fired, combined-cycle electrical plant within three years. The proposed Russell City Energy Center, a joint project of Calpine Corporation and Bechtel Enterprises, would occupy a 14-acre site in Hayward's industrial corridor, backing up to the marsh. The plant would use water -- 3.3 million gallons per day -- from the sewage-treatment plant across the way as part of its combined-cycle power generation. The plant would be between seven and twelve stories high, with two 145-foot cooling towers. The proposal includes a 120-foot-high wavy architectural screen that would disguise the plant to a certain degree -- a nod to the city's concerns that the plant, visible to commuters as they exit the San Mateo Bridge, would sit at Hayward's front door and come to define the city.

Calpine/Bechtel starting looking for potential power-plant sites throughout the Bay Area in 1996, and the Hayward site lies in between their existing plants in San Jose and Pittsburg. The company's goal, says spokesperson Lisa Poelle, is to build newer plants that use 40 percent less fuel.

"Modern power plants will actually improve the air," she says. "As you get power generated through modern facilities, the older ones won't be used. If we can be the best, most environmentally friendly power plants we can be, as we get four or five of these around the Bay Area, our air quality will improve."

Some environmental groups agree; the Sierra Club took out full-page newspaper ads to support the highly contested Calpine/Bechtel project in San Jose. But other local groups say the Bay Area, with its dismal air quality, is just not a good place for new electricity generators. For one thing, there's no guarantee that older, polluting plants will be shut off, so the sum effect of newer plants could be simply more pollution.

"The Bay Area is currently already in violation of air-quality standards," says Anne Simon, senior attorney at Communities for a Better Environment. "While these large natural-gas plants are touted as being 'clean,' the amount of pollution that comes out of them is quite large. Sure, they may be less polluting than if you burned coal, but they still emit lots of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog, and they emit lots of particulate matter, which contribute to respiratory problems. Hundreds of tons of pollution more is not less -- that's the fundamental part of the equation the power companies aren't telling people."

Although CBE is not working on the Russell City project directly, the handful of residents who showed up for a recent workshop held by the California Energy Commission to evaluate the Calpine/Bechtel application raised the same concerns about pollution. "I don't want to sound like a NIMBY or anything," said one, "but I live right downwind of this thing -- that plume's going to be blowing straight at me. How bad is the smog going to be?" The answer, according to a Calpine/Bechtel engineer, is not bad at all; the amount of pollution that settles locally will be "so small it can't even be measured." True, the plant will emit about 135 tons of nitrogen oxides a year, but the company is required to compensate for that smog-building emission by buying up credits (for instance, helping an existing factory clean up its act).

"There's really no way you can harm the environment or the public with these projects," says Poelle. "You have to be able to demonstrate to the Energy Commission that there is no adverse impact to human health or to the environment, or you can't build it, and if you're ever out of compliance, you're shut down."

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