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State lawmakers move to clear construction roadblock

A dispute has kept emissions permits from being issued, stalling several thousand construction projects in Southern California.

August 27, 2009|Marc Lifsher

SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers moved to clear a roadblock that has stalled several thousand construction projects in the Southland that couldn't get required environmental permits and got caught in a court fight over permitting power plants.

A compromise forged Wednesday would let the power plant dispute continue but would clear the way for unrelated projects. Supporters said the agreement would save about 57,000 Southern California jobs at 3,000 businesses and public agencies.

At issue are pollution permits issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Without them, construction projects of all kinds cannot go forward.

Getting the permits is essential for affected businesses and government, state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) told fellow lawmakers. "The ramifications are huge. We are losing a million dollars a day while we negotiate this."

The new business emissions permits could be issued as early as next month if the Legislature approves the compromise and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs it into law.

With only two weeks left in the legislative session, the Senate Environmental Quality Committee moved quickly to calm a political feud between a coalition of environmental advocates and the powerful South Coast AQMD -- and rescue businesses and local governments stuck in the middle.

The committee approved the compromise as part of SB 696, a bill by Wright. The committee also approved two related bills by other lawmakers.

The dispute arose two years ago when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that the AQMD violated state environmental laws by selling invalid pollution credits to the builders of a number of proposed power plants across the Los Angeles Basin.

The credits allow electric generators and polluters, whose facilities do not meet state and federal clean-air standards, to release fixed amounts of emissions of nearly microscopic bits of soot, often associated with the burning of natural gas and other fossil fuels. Scientists have linked the particulates to health problems, including asthma and heart ailments.

Environmental advocates complained that pollution from the gas-fired power plants would make the dirty air in the South Coast region even dirtier, especially in low-income neighborhoods near transportation corridors and industrial zones. Electric utilities and business groups countered that Southern California needed more modern generators to meet forecast growth.

But the judge's ruling affected more than power plants. It also prevented the AQMD from handing out even noncontroversial, routine permits needed by dry cleaners to install antipollution equipment, hospitals to replace emergency generators and water districts to upgrade pumps.

As originally drafted, Wright's bill would in effect have overturned the judge's ruling and freed the AQMD to sell credits that give pollution rights to power plants, to other projects that provide essential services to the public and to private businesses that release relatively small amounts of particulate pollution.

The Wright measure had strong support from a high-powered coalition that included electric utilities, oil companies, state and local chambers of commerce, local governments and labor unions.

The group had hired a well-connected initiative and political campaign consultant and lined up hundreds of supporters. The campaign emphasized the threat to thousands of jobs and brought considerable political pressure on lawmakers.

The compromise OKd Wednesday was the handiwork of the committee's chairman, state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). He spent much of the week seeking middle ground between the business-government coalition and the environmentalists.

A majority of the six-person committee, all Democrats, insisted that the committee not overturn the judge's ruling.

"I'm not comfortable about imposing our will on another branch of government and pretty much ignoring a court decision," Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) said.

The compromise put together by Simitian and Wright does not undo the main thrust of the Superior Court judge's decision, nor does it alter state environmental laws. It also does not address the AQMD's process for granting of pollution credits for power plants.

"We're going to let business go forward and take them off the table," Simitian said. "We're not going to let them be pawns in anyone's game."

The final deal, although not as attractive as the original that Wright proposed, "deserves to pass," said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist for the electrical workers and other unions. "This is important to us purely on the jobs front."

A second bill grants a major concession to the power industry. The measure by Assemblyman Manuel V. Perez (D-Coachella) specifically authorizes the construction of an 850-megawatt, gas-fired power plant in Riverside County near Palm Springs. The plant is under contract to provide power to Southern California Edison during hours of peak demand.

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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