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Arizona power plant expansion infuriates environmentalists – and strikes terror in black enclave


The surrounding land includes the Coolidge Power Station, an asphalt emulsion plant, and a bridge parts plant. A Union Pacific freight line runs along the eastern edge of Randolph, not far from the site of a February derailment that spilled toxic chemical cyclohexanone but resulted in no reported injuries. Also nearby is the El Paso natural gas pipeline, a section of which ruptured and exploded in August, killing a man and his daughter living on a farm on the outskirts of Coolidge.

In August, Randolph landowners began receiving letters from the Salt River Project announcing plans to add 16 gas turbines to the Coolidge Generating Station. The expansion, which would be completed in 2024 and 2025, is crucial to meet a soaring increase in energy demand in one of the country’s fastest growing regions, according to the utility. The plant’s new capacity would be used during peak periods of electricity demand, according to the utility.

While the Salt River Project says it is shutting down coal-fired plants and increasing its renewable energy generation, it says there is no way to meet immediate spikes in demand or meet its reduction commitments. carbon in the long run without also adding gas generation. Using solar and battery storage to achieve the same goals would be too expensive and not as reliable, Salt River Project executives said in an interview.

Coolidge’s expansion “would give us time to embrace renewables at a measured pace and help us make that transition reliably,” said Grant Smedley, director of resource planning at the Salt River Project.

Other utilities across the country are making similar arguments for new gas-fired plants. Climatologists say this is a mistake.

“We should be doing everything we can for climate, public health, energy security, etc., and none of that is compatible with building new gas-fired power plants,” said science professor Drew Shindell. earth at Duke University and author of a 2018 report on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote in an email.

In Arizona, the state chapter of the Sierra Club says the Salt River project is trying to rush its plan through the approval process by not soliciting bids from greener developers.

“To me, this demonstrates that they just aren’t taking climate change seriously enough,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, who formally opposed the Salt River Project’s request. before the Arizona Corporation Commission.

If the five elected members of the commission approve the expansion, the Salt River project will need to obtain an air quality permit from Pinal County before beginning construction.

Three committee members declined to comment, saying they did not want to speak before Tuesday’s vote. The other two did not respond to messages seeking comment.

“The system has let us down”

Residents of Randolph opposed to the project, including Jordan’s older brother Ron, who owns part of the old family property, hired a lawyer and also became involved in the case.

Ron Jordan played a leading role against the power plant expansion. Matt Martian for NBC News

In public hearings and legal filings, residents placed the project on a long history of government neglect and discrimination, beginning with its founding by black people who were not allowed to buy property in the nearby town of Coolidge. The plant and the light, noise and particles it emits would compound the effect of surrounding industries on residents’ health, property values ​​and enjoyment of the outdoors, they said. It would also hasten the demise of an important piece of Arizona history, they said.

“What we see here, as we have seen many times before, is a powerful entity destroying what black communities have built,” residents explained in a brief to the commission last month.

The Salt River Project, which purchased the plant from a Canadian company in 2019, does not dispute that the residents of Randolph were treated unfairly. But its planned expansion “is neither a cause nor a contributor to this past abuse,” the utility said in a brief to the commission last month. The environmental effects of the project on the community “will be minimal,” the utility wrote.

The City of Coolidge supports the project, citing potential economic benefits, including $10 million in additional property tax revenue from 2024 to 2033 and an additional $31 million in property taxes for the school district.

Town Manager Rick Miller said Coolidge was concerned about neighboring Randolph and that a new committee of government and utility officials and Randolph residents were looking for ways to improve the community. “We are not insensitive to their feelings,” Miller said. “They are our friends.”

So far, the utility has pledged to help with community improvements in Randolph, valued at between $10.5 million and $13.3 million. The plan includes dimming nighttime lighting, paving roads to reduce dust, installing landscape screens around the plant, funding job training and scholarship programs, and helping the community to be designated as a historic site.

“We believe we can play an important role in helping this community and addressing the broader concerns they face,” said Rob Taylor, public affairs director for the Salt River Project.

For many in Randolph, including in Jordan, those promises are too late.

“I think the system let us down,” Jordan said. “Our experience has shown that. Particularly for the economically disadvantaged, especially for people of color.

But Jordan, a Pima Indian who works as a project manager for the Gila River Indian community, said he felt obligated to his neighbors and ancestors to keep pushing.

Arizona power plant expansion infuriates environmentalists – and strikes terror in black enclave
The parents of Jeff and Ron Jordan met while picking cotton near Randolph, Arizona.Matt Martian for NBC News

He and about 30 other Randolph residents plan to attend the commission hearing on Tuesday to oppose the project, he said.

“Hopefully they do the right thing,” Jordan said. “That doesn’t look promising.”

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