Air District Staying Oddly Silent on Coachella Mitigation Grants

Smog in the Coachella Valley | Photo: Brendan Loy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A strange conflict is brewing in the polluted air of the Coachella Valley. At issue is $53 million in mitigation funding for a natural-gas-fire power plant being built near Desert Hot Springs, which is slated to fund air quality improvement projects in the valley. And the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) is refusing to talk about it, even at the urging of public officials.

The funding, paid to the state by the developers of the $500 million CPV Sentinel power plant to help mitigate the increase in pollutants from the plant, stimulated discussion of a number of ambitious and controversial air quality improvement projects in the valley. The proposals included initial funding for an $80 million, 46-mile auto-free Whitewater River Parkway paralleling Route 111 between Palm Springs and Coachella. Other proposals submitted included replacing diesel school buses with compressed natural gas versions, installing solar power and heating for public buildings and paving dirt roads in the East Valley.

The Sentinel plant will be an 850-megawatt peaker power plant on 37 acres of land near the San Gorgonio Pass wind turbines. The mitigation funding is intended to address the plant's addition to the serious air pollution with which the Coachella Valley is already contending. 30 percent of the funding, by law, must be spent in "Environmental Justice" zones, which have high poverty levels and a significant amount of particulate matter pollution. The Coachella Valley's Environmental Justice zones cover most of the eastern half of the valley in a broad swath from Mecca and Thermal to the San Bernardino County Line inside Joshua Tree National Park. Another 30% must be spent within a six-mile radius of the power plant.

SCAQMD, which will be administering the funding, agreed in February to spend the remaining 40% of the $53 million inside Coachella Valley. The district conducted a well-publicized grant process in which it solicited applications for funding from community groups throughout the valley. The deadline for applications was June 8, and more than a month later elected officials and reporters are beginning to ask questions about the proposals SCAQMD received. But the air district is refusing to release any information about the proposals, claiming that publicizing the data would be unfair to applicants.

SCAQMD had earlier informed applicants that their applications would be considered in the public domain.

The silence from SCAQMD was first noted July 6 by reporter K Kaufmann at the Palm Springs Desert Sun, who has been reporting on the controversial Whitewater River Parkway proposal. working on an update to the Parkway issue, Kaufman asked SCAQMD for some background information on the mitigation funding and was turned down. SCAQMD told Kaufman that they were entitled to keep the information confidential under provisions of the California Public Records Act intended to safeguard the deliberative process.

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Kaufman noted that the Desert Sun would be pushing SCAQMD to release the data, and the paper has gotten some traction. Three days later, the Riverside Press Enterprise's David Danelski picked up the story, reporting that SCAQMD's Executive Director Barry Wallerstein had floated the possibility that SCAQMD might need to invite a second round of proposals, which would have an advantage over previous applicants if those applicants' proposals were publicized. Wallerstein told Danelski that the applications would be publicized when final award decisions are made in the fall.

The argument that publicizing the details of current applications would give an unfair advantage to second-round applicants has some merit, but that's not all the information SCAQMD is sitting on. On Monday, State Assembly Member V. Manuel Perez, who represents the Coachella Valley, wrote a letter to Wallerstein formally requesting that the District share data about the applications with his office. Noting that his staff had made requests for data that SCAQMD had refused, Perez asked Wallerstein for the number of applications received, the total dollar amount represented by those applications, and a proposed timeline for subsequent stages in the process.

Perez's letter made several common-sense arguments for the release of the limited information he was requesting:

(Emphases in original.)

On Tuesday, Representative Mary Bono-Mack revealed that she'd sent a similar if less-detailed letter to Wallerstein. Despite the pressure, however, the SCAQMD yesterday reaffirmed their decision to keep all information relating to the funding under wraps.

It may be that SCAQMD is trying in good faith to protect the process from controversy like that over the Whitewater Parkway. It may also be the case that the applications process didn't go as productively as SCAQMD would have preferred. The mention of a second round of applications may indicate that SCAQMD found the first round of apps somehow disappointing.

But SCAQMD should bite the bullet and release the information. Regardless of the district's intent in keeping the information confidential for the time being, their recalcitrance threatens to poison an already controversial process.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments weekly about desert issues on KCET. Read his recent posts here.

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