24 April 2013

Towers of Terror Treading Towards Tumult?

The Champion's 19 April edition featured a front-page piece by Marianne Napoles about a two-hour teleconference held between California Public Utilities Commission administrative judge Jean Vieth, who will make a final ruling in July, and interested parties over the fate of the Section 8 portion of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project (TRTP).  The project, which was approved by the CPUC in 2009, started by Edison shortly afterward, and which had several of its freakishly tall 198-foot towers installed before an outcry from local residents forming the Hope for the Hills grassroots organization and from the City of Chino Hills, has been halted by the CPUC pending a review.

Since the construction stopped in late 2011, the City, Edison and the CPUC have been engaged in various forms of dialogue leading to the anticipated summer decision by Vieth over the future direction of the project.  Namely, the question is whether rerouting the lines underground are feasible.  The City has argued that it is, Edison has put out figures that place the cost at hundreds of millions of dollars, and the CPUC will make its decision, it now looks, solely on the feasibility and cost questions of the underground rerouting.

Vieth, in fact, all but quashed any notion that the height of the towers, the alleged safety risks from their placement in a very narrow 40-foot easement, the supposed EMF effects that have been claimed, the aesthetics and presumed property value declines have anything to do with what her final decision will be.

She did open the door to testimony about whether completed portions of the project could serve the Inland Empire without the Section 8 part being finished.  That will be provided by engineer Charles Mee of the CPUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, though the judge denied a motion by that group to expand the scope of the hearings which began this week in San Francisco, stating that the focus will be on the time, cost, and feasibility of putting the lines below ground.

Vieth also disallowed testimony by Hope for the Hills advocates and Chino Hills City Manager Michael Fleager as immaterial to the fundamental questions because aesthetics and opinions about presumed effects of the project were and are not at play.  She did permit some Hope for the Hills photographs to be submitted into evidence, but remarked that they were quite similar to renderings that appeared in the Environmental Impact Report required by the California Environmental Quality Act (which, by the way, is the target of a dramatic overhaul by Governor Brown to streamline building projects!)

Meantime, renewable energy organizations and TURN (The Utility Reform Network) are calling upon the CPUC to carefully consider the effects that placing the lines underground would have with respect to higher costs, including ones not anticipated in Edison's figures, which are already massive, and to construction delays brought about by the highly complicated process, which would also provide invasive in different ways than the current soaring towers jutting 20 stories towards the sky.

Again, it is hard to say what this all means with regards to a final adjudication in July, but Vieth's pointed comments about focusing on money, time, and practicability and her flat rejection of questions of aesthetics or neighborhood impacts are potentially very telling.  As stated here before, the public pressure effectively spearheaded by Hope for the Hills and accompanied by $3.5 million dollars expended by the City of Chino Hills to fight the towers may ultimately be blunted by a drawn-out process as orchestrated by the CPUC with negotiations, conferences, hearings and other administrative and bureaucratic mechanisms.

Why the CPUC would approve this project in 2009, face a barrage of open, public criticism stemming from grass-roots organizing and city rebuttals, and then undergo a 2-year cycle of reexamination only to fundamentally alter a project well into the later stages, in which construction contractors, renewable energy companies and other vendors could lose bundles of money and time (which, naturally, is $), would be truly stunning.

This may not be comparable, but the notorious California bullet train project might be illustrative.  After all of the approvals and the onset of early construction, an outcry about the cost and invasiveness of the project led to reconsideration, rehearings and etc.  Yet, the project, whether merited or not, is continuing on with some quite minor modifications.

How different will the TRTP through Chino Hills be?  If, as is very possible, the costs are deemed too high, the time lag too damaging, and the feasilbility too suspect, then the CPUC will allow the project to continue, behemoth towers looming over a benighted city and all.  All the time and money, evidence and exhibits, talk and more talk, will have yielded nothing fundamentally changed.

But, at least the CPUC could say that it gave the project a careful and considered reexamination.  At least Hope for the Hills could say, rightfully, that it gave a truly spirited and surprisingly effective effort to stop the towers.  At least the City of Chino Hills could say that it marshaled millions of dollars of taxpayer money for a presumed just cause.  No one need assume blame but can pass it on to someone else.

Then again, maybe the project will be ordered under ground, after all.   All we can do is stay tuned.

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