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Pollution Is Price of Power Crisis

Round-the-clock operation of aging plants in Glendale and elsewhere produces more than twice the old limit on emissions.


For the past five weeks, Glendale's Grayson power plant has been belching a half-ton of pollutants into the air almost daily, more than twice previous limits.

The same is true for many of the other 14 power plants in Southern California as the "haves" generate power, sometimes round-the-clock, for the "have-nots."

The generators, some of them nearly 50 years old and once considered too dirty for regular use, now keep electricity flowing to fellow residents around the state. And those living downwind are subjected to twice as much air pollution as before California's energy crunch.

Not every Glendale resident is happy.

"You don't want anyone to get stuck with a rolling blackout, but we get struck with the pollution," Jerold Petrosian said as he and his family bought plants at a nursery across the street from the power plant. "It is a tough decision."

Not so for Ignacio Troncoso, director of Glendale Water & Power. "There is a pretty decent trade-off, helping our neighbors in the state to keep their lights on," he said.

A USC specialist warned that increased power plant emissions raise the risks of asthma and other lung ailments in the young and old.

"There is a potential for more emergency room visits, more people seeing their doctors and more hospitalizations this summer," said Dr. Henry Gong, professor of medicine and a specialist in the health effects of air pollution.

With extended hours, the Glendale generators are emitting as much as 995 pounds of pollutants into the air during peak demand, more than double the old limit of 390 pounds a day, city and air-quality officials said.

The other 14 power plants in Southern California also have more than doubled their overall emissions, according to preliminary figures from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. As a group, the plants emitted a total of 2,045 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide in the first three months of 2001, compared with 905 tons for the same period last year.

The AQMD hearing board on Tuesday eased pollution controls so Glendale may continue to generate excess electricity for sale to the energy-starved state. Under the plan, Glendale may run three of its old steam boilers round-the-clock to meet the state's energy demand. Usually, these boilers, hidden behind a tall brick wall, sit idle except during the peak summer demand because they are inefficient and costly.

Glendale, like Burbank and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, continues to produce electricity at its city-owned plant. The three cities opted against participating in a scheme of deregulation, a decision that has shielded their residents, by and large, from the huge utility rate hikes and rolling power outages experienced elsewhere. But they also will contribute to easing the state's energy emergency in the dirtier air they will be forced to breathe.

Air-quality officials said power plants contribute just about 3% of the 900 tons of pollution emitted into the air daily, with about 70% of the pollution coming from vehicles, not factories. And in recent years, many of the region's municipal power generators have been updated with pollution-control devices that reduce emissions.

Glendale's three steam generators, built between 1953 and 1963, are inefficient by today's standards, but they are 85% cleaner since the city pumped millions of dollars into upgrades. They will be even cleaner, city officials say, with more retrofitting.

Under the plan, Glendale must reinvest profits from energy sales, estimated at $3 million to $5 million this year, in equipment to reduce future emissions at the plant and in community-based programs, such as mobile asthma clinics and programs to reduce school bus emissions.

The city plans to sell as much as 50 megawatts of power, enough to serve 50,000 homes. Under the decision Tuesday, pollution limits resume Jan. 1, 2002, or when the energy emergency ends.

In Los Angeles, power officials said they don't expect to exceed AQMD caps, because they are adding pollution controls at two of the city's four power plants. Although they will produce more electricity, they should not produce any more nitrogen oxide, which in sunlight and heat form ozone, said Angelina Galiteva, LADWP's director of strategic planning.

"We will have much cleaner equipment in place by June," she said.

Even the environmentalists are trying to balance the risks.

"We realize we have a problem this summer. We have to run these plants," said Sheryl Carter, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council.

Carter said natural-gas-powered generators, like the ones in Glendale, are "a far superior solution to diesel generators," which produce 50 to 100 times the emissions and would be turned on in businesses across the state if energy is unavailable from other sources.

"We are trying to make sure the environment overall is made whole," she said.

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