Air quality officials temporarily rejected a deal Tuesday that would have allowed a power plant to start operation at a Chino prison without strict controls for air pollution.
A hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, meeting in Diamond Bar, directed the district and the developer of the plant to bring a revised agreement back for discussion Aug. 22.
That delay gives the plant little more than a month to be built to qualify for a special state exemption from environmental rules. That exemption expires Sept. 30.
In early June, the California Energy Commission approved New Jersey-based Delta Power's proposal for a 180-megawatt plant outside the Chino Institution for Men under Gov. Gray Davis' fast-track permitting process for power plants during the state energy crisis.
The plant could provide enough power for 135,000 households.
Although the governor's program shortens the review process and eases pollution restrictions, the plant is still subject to review by the AQMD. The agency and company put together an agreement that would allow the plant to run without controls to reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution during its first 30 days of operation only.
In May, the agency said it would give the plant a permit. But after environmental groups protested, the agency asked for more data. The plan then went Tuesday to the hearing panel, which is appointed by the AQMD governing board but is independent.
"We're under an obligation to act quickly, but we're under no obligation to suspend our rules," AQMD official Peter Mieras said Tuesday.
Company officials have said they fear the pollution control equipment will not be delivered and installed by the Sept. 30 deadline because demand for it nationwide has surged amid a frenzy of power plant construction. If the company misses the deadline, it would have to reapply under the old guidelines for licensing, which could take many more months.
Under the agreement presented Tuesday, Delta could emit no more than 14,800 pounds of excess nitrogen dioxide during the first 30 days and would be required to pay $1.80 per pound in penalties, which could total as much as $26,640. But the hearing board expressed concern that the written agreement didn't make this clear enough.
Board Chairman Edward Camarena and other members said the deal looked too much like a "variance," which would not require Delta to pay any penalties for the excess pollution.
District and company representatives said after the hearing that it should be easy to meet the board's demands.
And project manager Jay Roland said he can still build the plant by the deadline.
"We're moving dirt," he said. "We're drilling holes."