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Power to the people 

With Duke Energy leaving Morro Bay, the future of the estuary is up to us

Imagine an aquarium, or marine museum, a hotel, or even open space on the 107 acres fronting the Morro Bay National Estuary and the ocean where the 50-year-old Morro Bay Power Plant now stands.

That, in fact, is what people are doing - imagining all kinds of possibilities for the site, which itself once held an estuary surrounded by a Chumash village - now that Duke Energy has announced it plans to sell the plant and exit California.

Some residents were imagining from the beginning, when Duke bought the plant in 1998 in order to replace it with a new facility. Some saw it as an exciting opportunity to envision and plan for something other than a power plant on one of the most breathtaking pieces of property in the world, with Morro Rock looming nearby.

But that wasn't seen as a practical time to think of such things. In 2000, California was plunged into an energy crisis, and the state wanted more power plants as quickly as possible.

But now, imagination has seized the initiative with Duke pulling out, no final regulatory approval of a new plant, the future of the site up in the air, and the realization that the so-called energy shortage was actually the result of market manipulation by power providers. And we, the Coastal Alliance on Plant Expansion and the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, think the timing is perfect.

This is, clearly, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the residents of Morro Bay as well as the county should have the chance to think hard about what should go on that priceless property and also the chance to participate in the decision about its future.

All we're proposing is that people here be provided information, pro and con, about the plant versus alternatives, have a chance to discuss it, and be allowed to express their preferences to the decision makers.

They deserve it. The plant was built when there were very few environmental protections. Morro Bay residents inherited the plant from the county when the city incorporated in 1964. There was no community input at any point. That input is essential now.

Why? Because the community is directly affected by what happens to the plant site. Residents of the city and county are the primary "stakeholders" in this decision. Some cynically argue that Duke, or a subsequent owner, is the predominant stakeholder because their investment is so great, running in the multiple millions.

The existing plant, or a new one as proposed by Duke, will kill significant numbers of fish in Morro Bay, which is designated a state and national estuary because of its uniqueness and value to the public. The estuary is one of the few left on the California coast, and destroying its marine life could - in combination with other factors, like high bacterial content (which exists) - result in its collapse as a fishery. That analysis is drawn from a report of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the use of ocean water by existing power plants, like Morro Bay, for cooling purposes.

The estuary is the lifeblood of the surrounding communities of Morro Bay and Los Osos. People who have bought properties there depend on a healthy estuary to protect their investment, which sometimes represents a life's savings.

This threat to the estuary has no effect on Duke, which can, and is, walking away. But the city of Morro Bay and the county also depend on the estuary as a tourist attraction, which represents a primary source of revenue for businesses and, ultimately, for local government through taxes on services. Thus, a healthy economy is tied directly to a healthy estuary.

The existing plant, when operating, also produces air emissions that can be a health risk to people, particularly the young and elderly. The proposed plant designed by Duke would produce more ground-level concentrations of particulate matter, one of the most harmful of the emissions.

If the Duke plant were built, " ... air quality impacts ...; are expected to be greater than the existing facility in nearly all cases," a California Energy Commission report concluded.

If understood by the public, none of this can be good for property values and tourism.

The point is that people are beginning to realize it doesn't have to be this way. There may be alternatives to seeing a power plant suck the life out of the estuary and expose people to asthma, respiratory ailments, and cardiovascular disease.

All we're proposing is that people here be provided information, pro and con, about the plant versus alternatives, have a chance to discuss it, and be allowed to express their preferences to the decision makers, such as the Morro Bay City Council, which can have a big say in the plant site's future. We need a process to make an informed discussion possible.

Short-term, a new plant would undoubtedly generate more revenue for Morro Bay and other county governments through taxes. Long term, a hotel, other commercial enterprises or tourist attractions like an aquarium or maritime museum could probably produce as much or more revenue from a new focus on eco-tourism, which has become a huge industry in other places of beauty with birds and wildlife like Morro Bay. Part of the site could be restored to natural habitat or converted to open space in conjunction with commercial activity.

So if money is important to residents, it can be obtained without relying on a power plant. In fact, the power plant and the prospect of a new one are what has prevented Morro Bay and the county from cashing in on eco-tourism.

The state doesn't need electricity from a Morro Bay plant. Construction of 11 plants has been approved by state regulators. They are not being built because of uncertainties within the energy market and an unclear state policy on regulation of plants. This community should not wait for all that to be sorted out to engage in a discussion on this plant's future.

The Central Coast doesn't depend on the plant's electricity. Our area uses only a trickle of the total energy supply in the state. The plant has been virtually shut down for nearly two years, and it has had no effect on the supply of energy to the state as a whole or the Central Coast.

The cost of converting the plant site to other uses may seem daunting, even though no one knows how big it would be. But ample money likely would be available through state, foundation and private sources, especially if a state open space and parkland bond issue, expected to be placed on the ballot in 2006 by the Legislature, is approved by voters, as they have done with almost identical measures in the past.

Isn't it time, with so much at stake, to put this question to a democratic test and find out what people who will be most directly affected think about it?

If you agree, let the people who represent you in elected office - the Morro Bay City Council, the Board of Supervisors, Sen. Abel Maldonado, Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and Rep. Lois Capps - know you want them to start imagining, too.

Morro Bay resident Jack McCurdy is a founding member of the Coastal Alliance on Plant Expansion and a former LA Times reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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