Pajaro residents debate the benefits of Calpine's proposed 'peaker plant.'
Thursday, June 27, 2002
Photo by Jessica Lyons
Photo: If They Build It, It Will Hum: Calpine proposes to put a "peaker plant," like this one in Gilroy, in an abandoned field in Pajaro.
There''s a dusty, ugly plot of land in Pajaro, across the street from the green, dewy strawberry fields to the north of Railroad Avenue. Small blue garbage bags lie mixed with piles of dirt and rock, and overgrown brush covers the ground from the gravel road on the north to the Union Pacific Rail Lines on the south.
Calpine, a San-Jose based energy company, wants to build a 45-megawatt power plant on this site, between the rail line and the intersection of Alison Road and Railroad Avenue, a plot previously used for ice production.
Calpine officials say such "peaker plants"-small energy facilities used to boost the state''s electricity supply during peak demand periods-are the only way to keep the lights on in California.
They also sing the praises of the tax dollars-between $160,000 and $200,000 annually-and the wonders these monies will do for the tiny blighted town of Pajaro, a village of 4,500 residents, most of whom are recent Mexican immigrants.
"When a business looks to relocate in Pajaro, they see a community that in 1995 was 11 feet underwater. They see years of benign infrastructure neglect, so it has traditionally not been an attractive place for business," says Monterey County Redevelopment Director Jim Cook. "This [Calpine] project would allow Pajaro to move forward."
Cook says the town would also be able to use the Calpine tax money to leverage federal and state redevelopment grants.
But some of the town''s residents say the peaker plant-essentially an enclosed jet engine with an 80-foot-tall smoke stack-will scare away future business and will sacrifice the health and safety of Pajaro residents.
"It won''t create jobs. It will use a lot of water. So what is the benefit?" asks Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez. "This community has nothing. So what will the benefit be to Pajaro?"
The answer is money-lots of it. A minimum of $160,000 in property taxes a year.
To some Pajaro residents, neither the money nor the electricity the plant will generate is enough of an incentive. To others, any new development in Pajaro would be an improvement.
On July 10, the county planning commission will decide.
"Who would want to work right next to an electrical plan?" asks Alberto Vazquez, who manages the La Esperanza Market just up the street from the proposed power plant. "Everything they don''t want to see in Monterey County, they send it to Pajaro. The county knows exactly who they are dealing with. They know the people here don''t defend themselves, don''t know their rights. I speak English and I had problems understanding what [Calpine officials] are talking about."
The Pajaro energy facility would be nearly identical to one in King City, according to Calpine spokesperson Kent Robertson-a facility that Assemblyman Fred Keeley last year called "very dirty" but a "necessary evil" to prevent rolling blackouts.
Keeley could not be reached for comment on the Pajaro plant.
LandWatch Monterey County''s Gary Patton worries that the peaker plant is being pushed through without adequate environmental review.
In a letter to the county, Patton writes that the project would "directly impact a lower-income community, and people of color, who reside in the area, and expose them to increased air pollution," a charge that Robertson calls a "red herring."
"We have to look for high-capacity electrical and gas lines, as well an industrial zoning," Robertson says. "The Air Board will not allow us to build this project if it''s going to impact human health, regardless of the color of the human. I would challenge LandWatch to point out a better site."
According to Robertson, Calpine chose the Pajaro site because of its proximity to existing gas and transmission lines, its nearness to the existing Calpine Watsonville Power Plant, and the land''s industrial zoning.
"In this business, it''s location, location, location," Robertson says.
At a May 2002 meeting of the citizen advisory group for the Pajaro and Castroville redevelopment area, the 14-member committee was asked to approve the power facility.
"The community had a lot of concerns-noise, pollution, safety, environmental issues, landscaping, water," says committee member Diane Young, who owns Young''s Tires on Salinas Road. "But there are also reasons why it could be a really good benefit to the community, like the $160,000 of redevelopment money."
The plant won''t pollute the air and water, although ammonia will be used and stored at the plant, say Calpine officials. They''ll plant tall, fast-growing trees to mask the turbine generator.
The county''s initial study says the power plant meets all local, state and federal regulations and that noise will be minimal.
And while the energy plant won''t directly produce additional jobs for Pajaro residents-Calpine will only hire three to five employees to operate the facility-the company will pump money into the town through redevelopment tax dollars, donations to the town and the like.