Public hearing unnecessary for proposed Wabamun power plants, says regulator

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal July 27, 2014

EDMONTON – Despite concerns from environmental groups and landowners, a public hearing is not necessary into two new gas-fired power plants proposed by Capital Power near Wabamun.

That decision by the Alberta Utilities Commission has raised concerns that the regulator is stifling public discussion and taking a more restrictive of view of who has a right to raise concerns about a new electricity project.

But the AUC firmly rejected that suggestion, saying there has “absolutely not” been any change its approach.

None of the concerned landowners or groups qualified under the AUC rules, which require a person be “directly and adversely affected” and live within 2,000 metres of a proposed power plant — though that distance is flexible, said AUC spokesperson Jim Law.

Capital Power maintains its position that additional emissions from the two new plants, Genesee 4 and 5, will be under legal limits and accepts the AUC decision, said Capital Power’s Michael Sheehan.

Brian Staszenski of the Strawberry Landowners Group, which has qualified for standing at the AUC in the past, says a hearing is necessary to give the public confidence in resolving conflicting views about air pollution from the proposed plants.

“The AUC has taken the company’s word that the new plants will not add to the pollution load,” said Staszenski, with the group that represents about 60 area landowners and was turned down by the AUC.

“But how do we know that, and where is the public test? That’s how the system is supposed to work,” said Staszenski, adding that his group qualified for standing at a 2010 hearing.

The Pembina Institute, an environmental research group, was also turned down for standing, though it also qualified in 2010.

The Pembina notes that the airshed in Edmonton, downwind from the coal and proposed gas plants to the southeast, is already at the legal limit for particulate matter. It says emissions from the new plants will exceed those levels — a view disputed by the company.

Lawyer Debbie Bishop, who has been representing landowners and other groups for years at the AUC, says the AUC’s June decision is “troubling” and “surprising.”

“The AUC used to be really good about hearings and this is the first time these same groups did not get standing as they have in the past,” said Bishop, who represents the Strawberry landowners.

“There are benefits to everyone going through the process and the result can be conditions on the operator to do a better job.”

The nearby Gunn Métis settlement was also turned down.

Bishop also said it is odd that the AUC asked the company for additional information on its pollution estimates after the hearing was denied.

That new information should be tested at a hearing, she said.

Ben Thibault, director of electricity policy at the Pembina Institute, says the decision not to hold a hearing shows the AUC process is “flawed.”

The AUC is supposed to make decisions on new projects based on the public interest, but the public is excluded without a hearing, he said.

But it’s not clear how larger issues, such as Edmonton’s airshed, get addressed, he said.

“To air these concerns at a hearing, why would it have been harmful?” he said.

Also, no one is looking at the cumulative impacts of each new plant that adds more to the already high pollution load, he said.

“We had hoped to get conditions on the project to make sure it does not make air pollution worse,” said Thibault.

“These concerns don’t go away just because people are denied standing.”

Capital Power is also looking to extend the life of its nearby coal-fired plants.

Since new transmission lines were recently completed into the area, activity is high. Two more plants are in the works — TransAlta’s 800 megawatt Sundance 7 plant and Atco’s 400-megawatt plant in the Industrial Heartland east of Edmonton.

The area landowners are also dealing with an application to expand the coal mine, and that goes through the Alberta Energy Regulator, said Staszenski.

It’s not possible for landowners to live within the 2,000 metre radius of the proposed plants due to the large coal mine, he added.

The AUC is reviewing the application and the additional emissions information supplied by the company on July 5, said Law.

In making its decision on a hearing, the AUC looks at a number of factors, including “the nature of the project, the specific concerns and who would be directly affected,” said Law in an email.

In this case, “the AUC determined there were not individuals or groups with a direct connection …”

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