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City Not Electrified by SDG&E's Plans to Upgrade Lines, Substation

Council passes a strongly worded resolution saying the project should be relocated to another town.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Before becoming editor of San Juan Capistrano Patch, Penny Arévalo served on a focus group for San Diego Gas & Electric and saw early plans to upgrade the local substation and power poles in the area. For her service, she received $75.

The City Council passed a strongly worded resolution Tuesday night, demanding San Diego Gas & Electric drop a plan to upgrade power lines and a substation near downtown San Juan Capistrano unless the utility can address and neutralize every environmental concern the project would pose.

In a two-hour discussion, SDG&E officials described their project as . They said the overhaul was necessary to provide reliable electrical service to customers throughout South Orange County.

But council members weren’t buying it.

“Move the hub away from our downtown. It would absolutely devastate our downtown,” said Councilwoman Laura Freese.

“It’s difficult to love this project,” agreed Mayor Larry Kramer, an electrical engineer by profession who asked pointed questions of SDG&E officials, who couldn’t always supply answers. He said he would prefer the utility bury the lines and substation.

Technically, the city doesn’t have a lot of say in the project, which will go before the California Public Utilities Commission for approval.

The project calls for demolition of a building constructed in 1918 – one the city has defined as a “building of distinction” and historical significance –and replace it with two buildings about 45 feet high and more equipment behind them. The project would effectively double the substation’s capacity, said Duane Cave, external affairs director for SDG&E.

In addition, taller utility poles would replace some of the wooden electrical poles throughout town as a new line handling 230 volts makes its way from near across Juliana Farms, , Rancho Madrina homes, a portion of the Marbella Country Club and then across the 5 Freeway to the substation, a 5-acre property that fronts Camino Capistrano at Calle Bonita.

“We’re talking about destroying a historic building,” said Councilman John Taylor. He noted that he owns two historic buildings and wasn’t allowed to demolish them. “I don’t think it should be an option for SDG&E either.

“You came here a long time ago. Maybe it’s time to say good-bye and find another spot,” Taylor added.

SDG&E expects to submit its proposal on April 30, complete environmental impact reports by next year and hopes for approval by the end of 2013, Cave said.

Even so, he said he was disappointed by the council’s action Tuesday.

“We’ve been working with the community for a long time. I feel they’ve been swayed by disinformation,” Cave said. Still, “we’re ready to work with them and move forward.”

Several residents spoke out against electromagnetic fields they said would increase with more power surging through the lines. They said they feared for their safety as some believe EMFs lead to childhood leukemia and brain tumors in adults.

“I do believe these risks are very real, and I say: Why risk it?” said resident Kim Lefner.

“The proposal threatens the safety, welfare and long-term health of too many of our San Juan Capistrano residents,” said Deborah Smith, who referenced a .

Councilman Derek Reeve penned the resolution (see PDF attachment above) because he wanted to send a message that the city stands together as a “united front.”

It says in part: "SDG&E's proposal 'Reliablity Project' negatively impacts the quality of life for this community while its benefits principally accrue to other cities where the additional substation capacity should be more logically located."

The motion passed 4-0, with Councilman Sam Allevato recusing himself from the discussion because his homeowners association owns land that SDG&E uses as an easement for its power lines.

The council also passed a motion to form an to come up with a design that would be more in character with the town's historic nature.

Squonk February 22, 2012 at 06:30 PM
I understand the City Council's concerns, but on the other hand, we do need reliable power. I like the idea of the aesthetics team to help design the building. With the right team in place, I think it would improve the look of the wires and poles that are there now.
desimal February 22, 2012 at 06:56 PM
why cant we go underground? what power reliability issues do we have? Other than the power outage last summer, which affected the entire San Diego region (and SJC), my power is pretty reliable, and it doesn't sound like this would even resolve that issue.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 22, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Hi Desimal, SDG&E says they want to build "redundancies" to the system they have now so that if one line goes down or the substation at Talega goes offline, the rest of the region won't be affected. Right now, power comes in from the south at the Talega substation, then goes out to the rest of the area's substations. The new project will connect a second line from the south straight to San Juan Capistrano's substation, which would also go out to other substations in the area.
Kim February 22, 2012 at 09:39 PM
It's easy City Council..."just say no" like Ladera Ranch did. A substation in SJC does nothing for us but add blight. Bye Bye SDG&E!
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 22, 2012 at 09:43 PM
It's not that easy, Kim. The City Council doesn't have the final say on this project. The state Public Utilities Commission does. It can choose to address the city's concerns during the environmental review process (and either select an alternative project or mitigate this one so that it doesn't have as big an impact) or it can ignore them and approve mitigation measures that the city believes is less than satisfactory. In other words, it could go either way, but it's out of the hands of the City Council.
Jim Reardon February 22, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Penny, It is true that the CPUC regulates SDG&E. And they would have the final say on what will happen. However, the CPUC action will not indemnify SDG&E from claims for lost property value or personal injury that those affected along the right of way may suffer. Obviously, the right of way already exists and there is an existing impact. SDG&E must be made to prove that they are not increasing that impact by their upgrade. They cannot be allowed to upgrade that facility with a hand-wave justification of safety. Reasonable experts disagree about what level of EMF is dangerous, but they all agree that at some level, IT IS dangerous. CalOSHA sets limits in occupational settings, the World Health Organization has guidelines, and SDG&E even has limits for its own employees. The council has taken a reasonable position that SDG&E not be allowed to increase their impact on our neighborhoods. This should suggest to the utility that they consider burying their new transmission line in the existing right-of-way. Our little tiny City just installed large feedwater lines from Cooks park, along the creek, and under the freeway to feed the GWRP. Big giant SDG&E can easily afford to bury these wires. They simply need the incentive to do so. Until they see the light, our City should oppose this project before the CPUC.
Jim Reardon February 22, 2012 at 10:16 PM
And incidentally, I would be remiss if I did not congratulate all of the members of the City Council for their decision.
scott bowie February 22, 2012 at 10:22 PM
i personally would love to see the plant moved elsewhere and the beautiful old building preserved. i realize this is a very nieve outlook, but surely the inclusion of the old buildings street facing facade could be preserved, the new wall incorporated around it. the building would bring some business to this part of town, a cafe with old prints of the town and orange county perhaps...or if the power company does move...a sculpture garden at the back, cafe and local gallery in the building...nice to dream =)
Hank Pfeffer February 23, 2012 at 03:41 PM
sounds like SDGE didn't do enough "prep work" with the city. now they'll have to find a poor neighborhood.
scott bowie February 23, 2012 at 04:25 PM
fascinating jim. is there any way we as locals, who live in this behemoths shadow, can take our objections to the CPUC ? the more i think about this, the more i get upset at the idea of twice as much EMF around here, not to mention the slide in property values. this plant sits right in the center of several residential neigborhoods, each with home owners associations. perhaps a show of unity with the surrounding neighborhoods could be enough to make them remove this ugly patch of the city and open up what could be a very attractive building/business and park for the residents - increasing property values, not destroying them. why scrape clean a site with a historic building from the time of the end of the first world war. why not just find a suitable vacant site to build where peoples health is not compromised ?
scott bowie February 23, 2012 at 04:27 PM
agreed. given this and the new pedro's issues, the city council have done this town a great service. commendable work.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 23, 2012 at 04:46 PM
You can take your concerns to the PUC during the environmental review process. SDG&E will commission a draft environmental impact report. When that is done, it will be released to the public (and described here), after which, you will have a time to submit written and in-person comments (the latter at hearings). After receiving all the input, a final version of the EIR will be published and commissioners will use that document and the application itself on which to base their decision. BTW, Mr. Cave from SDG&E says it's likely all hearings will be held locally.
Jim Reardon February 23, 2012 at 05:08 PM
Penny, you're correct that the CPUC will hold hearings. However, it would be advisable not to wait for these hearings to intervene in the process. By the time you hear about the hearings, SDG&E will have done most of their lobbying. I have some experience with the EIR process and I can tell you that it is designed to approve projects. It adds friction to the process for the applicant (SDG&E), but ultimately, some form of their project will be approved. The problem with the process is that often the mitigations promised during this process never materialize in the actual project. And when members of the public are involved, there is no leverage to hold the applicant accountable for the mitigations. Having the City of San Juan involved makes it more likely that the promises made by SDG&E during the application process will be kept. UNLESS, the city staff is already co-oped by SDG&E. By the look of that aesthetics proposal from staff, I'd say this is likely and Council members will have to be diligent with the staff to see that their position is adequately represented in the process. Remember, it is the staff that does the work of the city, not the individual Council members. The SDG&E representatives show a serious lack of respect for our City Council by their poor and often misleading presentation of this project on Tuesday. This should be taken as a cautionary lesson about what is to come.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 23, 2012 at 05:14 PM
Well, I'm not in the "advice" business. I'm in the "description" business. ;-) As indicated in the disclosure above, I did have access to early descriptions/simulations of this project. It has changed. I would describe the first proposal as early Northridge in the San Fernando Valley (nondescript, cinderblock wall and concrete tilt-up construction for the buildings).
Jim Reardon February 23, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Frankly, I am dismayed that the focus seems to be on the substation. The upgrade of that transmission line may be harder for people to understand, but it has far greater impact on this community than anything that may be done at the substation. If the substation plan has morphed, why not the transmission lines? Answer: SDG&E has "managed" the discussion in such a way that the "stakeholders" they identified were more interested in the color and character of a simple wall, instead of inviting people who live under the power lines to get involved. Thus, we have an "aesthetics committee". A sad joke on the public, brought to you by our city staff and their handlers at the utility.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 23, 2012 at 05:41 PM
We did see mock-ups of the poles, and the discussion began with the poles. I don't remember any discussion of EMFs (but I didn't take notes).
Jim Reardon February 23, 2012 at 05:43 PM
And incidentally, I have confirmed that the two local members of the CUSD Board of Trustees were unaware of this project and it's potential impact on SJHHS before the discussion broke-out in front of our City Council. Assuming that SDG&E even notified CUSD of their plans, then one would have to assume that CUSD staff are operating in a similar way. The whole issue was not brought to the attention of the school board itself.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 23, 2012 at 05:45 PM
BTW, undergrounding, as you suggest Jim, is just an aesthetics issue. If I'm understanding EMFs correctly (which have not been conclusively shown to cause cancer), they will not be mitigated by moving equipment underground. In fact, they may be stronger and closer to people than that from a tall pole.
Jim Reardon February 24, 2012 at 03:47 AM
Ahh, Penny, you are mistaken on that. Moving the transmission line underground will dramatically reduce the EMF. To give you an example of how the rules work on this, the 138KV lines adjacent to SJHHS are (mostly) OK, even though they are underground (mostly) 35 feet from the boundary of the school. However, above ground, the same facility would require a 150 foot setback from school boundary to the nearest edge of the power line right of way. If somebody at SDG&E told you otherwise, they were misleading you. Going back to SJHHS for a minute, consider the situation. On both ends of Vista Montana, the power lines are above ground. Between these points, the wires are under the street. How do you think the wires get from above ground to below ground? Answer: They go straight up and down the poles at both ends! You can walk right up to these poles and be mere inches from a live 138KV circuit. That sort of design might be OK in an isolated area, but it is simply irresponsible in a residential neighborhood. And then to "upgrade it" to 230KV? How can they propose such a thing? Obviously, the "stakeholders" they engaged were told little, and what they were told was simply wrong. Burying a transmission line attenuates EMF, reducing exposure to those at the edge of the right-of-way compared to overhead installations. Of course, you can walk right up to it -- you can stand right on top of it. But you and your kids won't be sleeping at that location.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) February 24, 2012 at 05:32 AM
I can only report what was said Tuesday night at City Council. It was represented that burying lines puts the EMFs closer to the population than tall poles. As this issue moves along, we will definitely do more research.
scott bowie February 24, 2012 at 05:56 AM
the new issues brought to light regarding the environmental safety of the project has me very concerned. i'm no expert, but that amount of juice slap bang in the middle of a residential complex has to be proven to be twice as dangerous (as its twice the size, being my assumption).
Joe February 24, 2012 at 10:32 PM
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (see page 15) you get more EMF from using a hair dryer or electric razor once than you would standing under these power lines for a year. Based on the scare tactics used by the fear mongerers like Scott Bowie and Jim Reardon, any woman who uses a hair dryer more than once a year should be lying dead on their bathroom floor. http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyNET.exe/000005EP.txt?ZyActionD=ZyDocument&Client=EPA&Index=1991%20Thru%201994&Docs=&Query=FNAME%3D000005EP.TXT%20or%20%28%20u%20or%20s%20or%20epa%20or%20emf%29&Time=&EndTime=&SearchMethod=1&TocRestrict=n&Toc=&TocEntry=&QField=&QFieldYear=&QFieldMonth=&QFieldDay=&UseQField=&IntQFieldOp=1&ExtQFieldOp=1&XmlQuery=&File=D%3A%5CZYFILES%5CINDEX%20DATA%5C91THRU94%5CTXT%5C00000002%5C000005EP.txt&User=ANONYMOUS&Password=anonymous&SortMethod=h%7C-&MaximumDocuments=10&FuzzyDegree=0&ImageQuality=r75g8/r75g8/x150y150g16/i425&Display=p%7Cf&DefSeekPage=x&SearchBack=ZyActionL&Back=ZyActionS&BackDesc=Results%20page&MaximumPages=1&ZyEntry=15
socalfam February 25, 2012 at 12:08 AM
Joe - you must work for SDG&E? Who else would defend such an intrusive, ugly and risky project in an historic small town? Are you familiar with this recent CBS news story from residents living near an near an electrical substation: "South Redondo Beach Residents Believe Stray Voltage is Causing Unexplained Illnesses": http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2012/02/09/south-redondo-beach-residents-believe-stray-voltage-is-causing-unexplained-illnesses/ Would you want to expose your family to such potential health risks? I know I wouldn't. If this project benefitted San Juan specifically, I might feel differently about it, but SDG&E admits that it's not for San Juan - it's for "the region". Why should our small town absorb the brunt of the health and safety risks and the visual blight, to accommodate other cities?
scott bowie February 25, 2012 at 12:27 AM
let me take break from mongering fear, joe your statement about using a hair dryer vs standing under a pylon for a year just doesn't hold up to any kind of logic when you think about it does it now ? really ? as to jims concern this has become about the building, initially thats what attracted my attention, but now the health risks associated with such a move seem very behind the times. given we have so much empty land around to have this thing in the middle of a historic town, and to tear down historic buildings and put peoples health potentially at risk it doesn't seem to make any sense at all. i dont see how seeking an alternative makes me a fearmonger in any way. just a concerned citizen.
Jim Reardon February 25, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Joe, the very EPA figures you cite show that a person using an electric hair dryer is exposed to EMF. This should come as no surprise. Using the worst dryer tested by the EPA, this would be 700 mG from a unit held 6 inches from the your head (the lowest, or best performing unit produced a 1 mG exposure from the same distance). The use of the worst dryer exposes a typical person to about 1 minute of this EMF per use (roughly, per day). In contrast, a 238KV transmission line produces a continuous EMF field ranging from about 70 to 700 mG at the edge of the right-of-way, as measured at ground level. The range of measurement is the result of changes in load on the circuit, e.g., time of day and time of season. During peak loads (e.g., air conditioned days), the EMF is at its highest. For a house adjacent to this right of way, or a child in a classroom, this is a chronic exposure to a high field. Remember that a natural outdoor background field is about 0.2 mG. The exposure to that EPA hair dryer lasts a minute or so. The exposure to the SDG&E power line may last 6 to 12 hours per day, or even more, depending on where you attend school or sleep. One of the things I like about EMF is the natural selection that is at work with it. In the long run, the rest of us don't have to worry about the propagation of people don't think, like you.
Jim Reardon February 25, 2012 at 12:42 AM
And furthermore, your choice to use a hair dryer or an electric blanket is yours to make. Inform yourself using the EPA figures. But if SDG&E creates an outdoor EMF field that comes on to your property from their wires, isn't that a simple matter of property rights? Can't you simply say NO? The outdoor background level of EMF is 0.2 mG. Levels 100's of times higher are measured at the edge of a power line right-of-way. Just over that edge is private property -- not SDG&E property. And in our modern communities, you usually find a bedroom not far from that location.
Jim Reardon February 25, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Even if this project did benefit SJC, I would still insist that it be designed to be safe. Since there is disagreement among experts about what is safe, a reasonable position would be that the project be, empirically, no worse than what they already generate along the path of their transmission line. SDG&E has already demonstrated that they do not want to be held to this reasonable limitation.

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