SJ Blows Off Air Pollution Pact

The Calpine plant at Monterey and Metcalf roads.

Six months after opening of the new energy center, southern air
quality monitoring station still missing
Morgan Hill – Six months after the Metcalf Energy Center came on line in Coyote Valley, the city of San Jose has yet to provide land to install an air monitoring station to protect residents of South County.

“San Jose agreed to put in … stations to monitor the air before and after it passed over the plant and that work has not yet been done,” said Tony Eulo, who heads up environmental programs for Morgan Hill. “The agreement didn’t specify a time but certainly one would think it should be done before the plant was open.”

San Jose is not violating any federal or state regulations, but it has not fulfilled its end of an agreement it made with Calpine Corp. to keep the project out of court. Under the agreement, Calpine has to install the monitoring stations, but the city is responsible for securing the land.

San Jose insisted on the stations because Calpine was able to avoid many of the city’s land use regulations after it was approved in 2001 at the height of the state’s energy crisis.

The energy center, which began operating in June near Bailey Avenue, was first proposed in 1999. Stephen Haase, director of planning for San Jose, said Calpine had to clear fewer regulatory hurdles because it was built when the state was desperate for new power plants.

“Calpine was able to bypass the city’s land use process,” Haase said. “In order for us to proceed we negotiated a separate agreement with Calpine.”

A temporary station has been installed north of the site, but there’s still no way to know if air quality has been affected immediately south of the plant.

The wind in the area blows north to south and the plant emits carbon monoxide, particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has three other monitoring stations in San Jose and a station at the South County Airport in San Martin.

“This is a non-regulatory requirement and there are other air monitoring stations in the region,” Haase said. “Any complaints should go to the BAAQMD.”

The city needs only 100 square feet of land accessible by road. Haase said the city has been working diligently to obtain land but is under financial constraints.

The city negotiated for months with the Morgan Hill Unified School District to lease land at a nominal rate, but those talks proved fruitless. San Jose is currently looking at land owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. There is no timeline for those parties to reach a deal.

“There were high hopes that the school district was going to be a partner in this but they elected not to play,” Haase said. “If we get public agency land then we can negotiate a favorable lease, a dollar a year or something like that. If this doesn’t work we can start looking at private property, but the (city) council will have to appropriate the funds.”

In addition to finding a piece of land at essentially no cost, San Jose must find a parcel far enough away from U.S. Route 101 to avoid contamination from freeway traffic and far enough from trees that could absorb the power plant’s pollution or redirect wind flow.

“On the southern site, we’re still trying to find a property that will be available for the life of the plant that also satisfies the BAAQMD siting criteria and is the least expense to the city as possible.”

To Morgan Hill City Councilman Steve Tate, San Jose’s failure to secure land is just one more example of the disregard the city has for its neighbors to the south. He called the lack of action emblematic of a city that has resisted Morgan Hill’s input on a range of transportation and development issues such as BART and Coyote Valley.

“It’s typical,” Tate said. “Every time we go to San Jose with a concern they find a way to bury it.”

Metcalf is a combined-cycle power plant that uses natural gas and steam turbine to create electricity. The technology reduces fuel consumption by as much as 40 percent and is substantially cleaner than traditional power plants running on diesel engines. Amid the environmental uproar, the plant won some unexpected allies, including the Sierra Club, which endorsed it because it will ease reliance on older, more polluting plants.

Metcalf will release about 124 tons of nitrous oxide each year. Figures provided by Calpine show that 600,000 vehicles release more than 50 times that much nitrous oxide annually.

Calpine Spokeswoman Lisa Poelle said the vapor is normally more visible in the cold, but admitted that the plant’s plume abatement system is in disrepair and won’t be fixed for several weeks. Poelle also said the company’s dire financial situation – its stock has fallen so dramatically that it will be removed from the New York Stock Exchange – will not prevent it from installing a southern monitoring station when San Jose finds land.

“The equipment has already been purchased,” she said. “We’re storing it.”

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