Some pilots are trying to convince the California Energy Commission that power plants and pilots don’t mix. The pilots are opposed to the construction of a gas-fired power plant near the Byron Airport (C83) in Alameda County east of San Francisco.
Pilots are worried that the emissions coming from the proposed smoke stack, which will be just 2.7 miles south of the airport, will endanger aircraft.
According to California Pilots Association (CPA) spokesman Andy Wilson, the power plant would produce a plume of contaminants and hot ammonia “that could affect engine operation or the pilot’s ability to see.”
Byron Airport is a busy general aviation facility, home to approximately 1,100 aircraft ranging from corporate jets to ultralights and gliders. A skydiving operation also is based at the airport, which is owned by Contra Costa County. In the 1970s it was a small private airport known as Byron Airpark. When the county determined that more space was necessary to accommodate the area’s general aviation population, the property was purchased and redeveloped into Byron Airport, which opened to the public in 1994. Today the airport sits on 1,307 acres, of which 817 is reserved for Habitat Management Land for a variety of endangered and special status species of mammals and plant life.
The pilot’s association has joined forces with local residents and environmental groups, who also oppose the power plant, concerned about the potential pollution and health hazards associated with emissions from the 200-watt gas-fired plant, which is being developed by Mariposa Energy LLC, a company owned by Mitsubishi.
To educate decision makers, as well as the neighboring community, about the dangers from smokestacks near an airport, the CPA has compiled accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board where exhaust from a smokestack was cited as a factor. In addition, the CPA obtained copies of a January 2006 FAA study, “Safety Risk Analysis of Aircraft Overflight of Industrial Exhaust Plumes.” “The idea is to demonstrate that a danger does exist,” Wilson said.
State energy officials say the new facility is necessary to meet the energy needs of the population.
Public input is part of the process, said Michele Demetras, information officer for the California Energy Commission, which is the agency that will decide whether the new power plant will be licensed. It’s not a quick or simple process, she said.
“Before licensing, the Energy Commission requires the applicant to produce comprehensive data about the proposed project in 22 areas, including public health and safety, which is of prime concern,” she said. Other federal, state and local agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board, and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, have stringent regulations that must be met by the applicant, Demetras said, adding, “the Energy Commission does not write a final staff assessment recommending certification without these other agencies’ compliance.”
Demetras noted the Mariposa Energy has to demonstrate a commitment to curtail pollution. In its application, the company has proposed using “Best Available Control Technology to reduce air emissions to minimal levels and will provide air mitigation and improvements to ensure there are no significant air quality impacts from the plant,” she continued.
Energy commission officials have reached out to residents and businesses near the proposed project, Demetras said, adding, “Several of the Energy Commission’s project managers and compliance officers have also been contacted by representatives of the pilots association and have shared with them whatever information was available at the time.”
According to Demetras, “nitrogen, oxygen, and other emissions from a power plant are not something that can affect an engine. The assessment also includes gliders and glider passengers, which also shows no detrimental effects. Again, the applicant has been asked to provide extensive data about these issues and their potential impacts and is in the process of responding to the requests.”
It may not be so much what comes out of the smokestacks, but its velocity, that is of greater interest to pilots, she noted. “Plume ‘modeling’ is now being done to a very advanced level to discern whether the emissions from the stack can in any way hinder pilots’ ability to steer and land aircraft in the vicinity of the plant.”
She said the energy commission invites the pilots association to petition for intervener status, which will make the group a party to the licensing process, giving it access to project information and allowing group members to testify and cross-examine witnesses.
Wilson noted the pilots are keeping apprised of all available information about the project, adding they aren’t shy about speaking up on the issue, which has also caught the attention of Keith Freitas, director of airports for Contra Costa County. In a letter to the energy commission he noted his concerns about the proximity of the power plant to the airport traffic pattern.
“The proposed power plant is just a few hundred feet from the main precision instrument runway corridor on runway 30,” he wrote. “Would the proposed location be hazardous to aircraft on an instrument landing, including if they slightly deviated from the prescribed corridor?”
Freitas also questioned the impact of the plume on VFR traffic. “It appears the site would also be adjacent to the standard ’45’ entry into the Runways 5 and 23 traffic pattern. The power plant site would be under the ‘right 45’ for aircraft departing Runway 12. This is specifically significant because it is the preferred departure runway for the skydiving company jump planes based on the airfield. Would flying over or near the proposed location pose a hazard to aircraft in flight?” he asks.
The issue will be back before the energy commission in January. A date for the next meeting has not been set.
For more information: Energy.ca.gov/SitingCases/Mariposa/Documents/index.html.