Statement: “South Bay Power Plant will shutdown in December,” the Environmental Health Coalition headlined a May 12 press release.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: Contrary to the group’s headline, the December closure of the South Bay Power Plant is not a foregone conclusion.

Last Wednesday, the San Diego Regional Water Control Board, the local water pollution regulator, confirmed that one of the plant’s key operating permits would expire in December. The permit allows the plant to discharge water into San Diego Bay. It’s needed for the plant to continue running.

After the meeting, the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition sent out its press release, announcing that the plant would shut down by the year’s end, the conclusion of a long-fought battle.

But the fight’s not over. The company that runs the plant, Houston-based Dynegy, can apply for a new permit, and if granted, it could run next year.

Dynegy spokesman David Byford said the company will soon begin the process of applying for that permit and would operate the plant next year only if required by the California Independent System Operator, the agency responsible for operating the state power grid.

“There are some indications that some of the criteria for removing the plant haven’t been met,” Byford said, citing the fact that the Sunrise Powerlink, a new major transmission line, hasn’t yet been built. “That gives us reason to believe the plant may be necessary for 2011.”

Cal ISO hasn’t made its decision yet. Gregg Fishman, a spokesman for Cal ISO, said his agency advised Dynegy to begin applying for the permit in case it’s needed next year. He said Cal ISO would decide in September or October whether the plant must continue operating in 2011 and wants Dynegy to have the permit if it’s needed.

“We may still enact a contract with it so it’s available if necessary,” Fishman said, “but only run it in emergency situations.”

That’s how the plant currently operates. It has run eight days this year — when the Baja earthquake struck, for example — to ensure electricity supplies.

Laura Hunter, an associate program director with the Environmental Health Coalition who’s fought the plant for years, said the news release’s headline reflected the coalition’s belief that the power plant won’t operate after December because of the numerous hurdles now facing it.

“They have the rights to apply for a new permit,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to get it.”

The coalition’s press release added similar context.

“The plant cannot operate after [December] without a applying (sic) for approval of new discharge permit, which seemed unlikely,” it said. “This would effectively end an environmental and public health nightmare that has plagued South Bay residents for 50 years.”

Instead of getting an easier permit extension, Hunter said, Dynegy would need a new permit that complies with new guidelines and operating procedures. She acknowledged that it’s possible — if doubtful — that Dynegy would get that permit and operate next year.

We gave it a “misleading” determination because the headline of the press release made it sound like the closure of the plant is a certainty. It is not. While the plant could indeed end up being closed at the end of the year, it’s also entirely possible that it will be open through 2011.

Regardless of exactly when it stops running, the plant is being phased out. Byford said Dynegy has already begun the process of decommissioning the plant.

“We don’t have long-term aspirations for the plant,” he said. “That’s not in the cards. We do have a short-term obligation to support grid reliability in the region.”

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Summer Polacek

Summer Polacek was formerly the Development Manager at Voice of San Diego.

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