Environmentalists sue over transmission lines from Mexico to U.S.

San Diego, Calif., March 20, 2002 — Two environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the federal government Tuesday to stop construction of electrical transmission lines from Baja, Mexico, into California.

The project has been lauded as a way of increasing California’s ability to provide power for its residents. But the environmental groups Earthjustice and Wild Earth Advocates, representing Border Power Plant Working Group, have said that power plants built in Mexico would not have to be built with environmental standards as high as those in the U.S., potentially causing a health hazard to the communities around the new plants.

The groups are challenging permits granted to two companies planning to build the electrical transmission lines which are being built to bring power from two electrical generation plants being built three miles inside of Mexico to supply power to the United States.

“Approving transmission lines for power plants under construction in Mexicali, without ensuring that these plants are built to minimize air and water quality impacts, will cause unnecessary harm to local US and Mexican communities,” said Bill Powers of Border Power Plant Working Group, the plaintiff in the case.

The lawsuit seeks to require environmental impact statements prior to the issuance of federal permits needed for the transmission lines to cross international boundaries. Operation of the plants would significantly degrade US air and water quality and would likely harm public health and the environment in the border region of Imperial Valley, California, and Mexicali, Mexico.

One of the stated goals of the current administration’s energy plan is “to expand and accelerate cross-border energy investment, oil and gas pipelines, and electricity grid connections by streamlining and expediting permitting procedures with Mexico and Canada.” (National Energy Policy, May 2001, page xv)

“Now we see that what the administration meant by ‘expediting’ power plant construction was actually a strategy to avoid US laws that mandate environmental review and public participation,” said Martin Wagner, attorney for Earthjustice. “Exporting our pollution into this region of Mexico is disturbingly cynical considering the President’s attendance at the U.N. meeting on international poverty in Mexico this week.”

Operation of the plants would also generate substantial air pollution that would cause further deterioration of air quality in California’s Salton Sea Air Basin, a region that is already unable to comply with the air quality requirements of the Clean Air Act (EPA and several state agencies have stated that this non-compliance is due in part to pollution from Mexico).

The border power plants would also discharge highly saline wastewater into the New River, which flows north across the US border and discharges into the Salton Sea. Both these water bodies already fail to meet the water quality standards of the Clean Water Act, and the principal problem associated with the Salton Sea is high salinity. Operation of the proposed border power plants would threaten the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge, a key habitat for birds in the Imperial Valley.

Much of the air and water pollution will result from the cooling systems the plants will use. Although Mexico is a world leader in the use of the cleaner “dry” cooling systems, the US developers of the border plants have proposed to use “wet” cooling systems that emit much more particulate matter into the air and greater concentrations of contaminants into the water. If the same power plants were constructed in Imperial County, California, they would be required to use dry cooling to eliminate particulate emissions.

“The Department of Energy did an environmental assessment before issuing the permits to build the transmission lines but their study ignored the impacts of the power plants even after the EPA advised them to include such consideration,” said Julia Olson an attorney with Wild Earth Advocates. “Not surprisingly, DOE concluded that the plants would have no significant environmental impact and granted the permits.”

The suit filed today challenges the permits and the associated environmental assessment for the transmission lines. It also challenges the DOE’s failure to prepare an EIS and failure to evaluate the combined environmental impacts from the transmission lines, the pipeline being constructed to provide fuel to the plants, and the operation of the plants themselves. The suit alleges the National Environmental Policy Act requires that these connected actions be assessed jointly. The suit also challenges the failure to consider alternatives to this action, including granting a conditional permit for the transmission lines linked to a commitment that the power plants will comply with US environmental standards and use best available technologies.

This suit would establish a precedent applicable to future border power plants that may be built to provide energy for US markets, both in Mexico and Canada. The suit will also provide an incentive for the US and Mexican governments to collaborate to establish air quality standards and measures to reduce pollution in the US-Mexico border region. Such initiatives are under way, but are not currently a high priority for either government.

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. For more information, visit Earthjustice’s web site at http://www.earthjustice.org/index.html.

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