FAA: Planned power plant a safety risk
Latest letter stresses dangers to aircraft landing at Hayward airport
By Matt O’Brien, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 09/21/2007 02:40:09 AM PDT
HAYWARD ? The power plant that Calpine Corp. wants to build in west Hayward would be a safety risk to passing aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration says in a letter addressed this week to state energy officials. The California Energy Commission was set to vote on and most likely approve the 600-megawatt plant in a Sacramento meeting last week but postponed the decision because an FAA official ? less than a half-hour before the hearing ? urged the commission to halt. n a follow-up letter, the federal agency acknowledges that it had weighed in “rather late” in the six-year process but calls attention to potential air hazards that could cause fatal crashes near the airport.
“The Hayward airport is populated by pilots of varying experience levels, from those with considerable flight time down to student pilots,” the letter states. “It is not reasonable to expect pilots to look for the exhaust stacks and cooling towers on the ground, then see and avoid any visible plumes while attending to their primary responsibility of safely operating the aircraft.”
Energy Commission staff have been concerned since early this year about the hot plumes of exhaust that could quickly rise up hundreds of feet above the natural-gas-fired plant on cold days.
The high-velocity plumes could cause turbulence that damages aircraft or affects their stability, according to the FAA. There could also be adverse impacts from “high levels of water vapor, Advertisement engine-aircraft contami-nants, icing and restricted visibility,” the FAA states.
The stacks themselves would rise 145 feet into the air, and aircraft flying to and from the city’s airport have to fly at about 600 feet.
That flight pattern is lower than the standard because smaller local aircraft are ordered to stay a safe distance below commercial jets heading toward Oakland International Airport.
And that, says the FAA, leaves little maneuvering room, especially with a large power plant about 1.5 miles from the Hayward airport.
Because of similar air safety concerns, staff members at the California Energy Commission issued a report over the summer declaring that the power plant, known as the Russell City Energy Center, should not be built at the proposed location. But the two appointed commissioners presiding over the project overruled that recommendation in August, citing a letter issued by the FAA in July.
In the July letter, an official from a different division of the FAA said pilots could avoid the plant if the agency issued a “Notice to Airmen” warning them to avoid the airspace above or near the plant.
But the FAA backed off on that assertion this week.
“It will be virtually impossible for pilots to comply with this (notice),” states the letter written by Richard Cambra for FAA Regional Administrator William Withycombe.
With navigable airspace already heavily constricted, the officials say, adjusting runway traffic to accommodate the power plant is not feasible.
It remains unknown how the letter will affect the decision-making process for the five state energy commissioners tasked to approve or deny the plant.
At the hearing last week, Commissioner John Geesman, the presiding member overseeing the Russell City proposal, said his decision to overrule his own staff’s assessment was based on his “faith and reliance on correspondence” received from the FAA over the summer.
San Jose-based Calpine Corp., which has been trying to build the Hayward plant since before 2001, has urged the commission to make a final decision at its next meeting on Sept. 26. The company has said it is on a tight schedule to build the plant in time to comply with its contractual obligations with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Others want the commission to slow down.
In a letter issued Thursday, Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker asked the commission to wait another month before making a decision.
“I am troubled that the unincorporated communities, which include San Lorenzo and which are located next to the city of Hayward, have not been given adequate public notice about this project,” Lai-Bitker wrote, adding that adverse impacts of the plant could extend beyond Hayward’s borders.