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Foul Discharge

As the year ended a permit for Mirant Corporation’s Potrero Power Plant‘s cooling system died. A day later millions of gallons of bay water is still being sucked into the vents for cooling, then the now-heated water is returned from whence it came. In this simple mechanical process mutated bay fish are sacrificed for PG&E’s customers and the bay sediment, containing copper, dioxin, mercury and PCBs, among other caustic chemicals, stirs up. There are no plans to stop using this cooling system despite the ecological havoc or an angry Board of Supervisors.

How can a company thumb its nose in the face of the law? There’s a pending case in the US Supreme Court about federal water guidelines which provides Mirant with enough ground-cover to continue operations. The local water board probably has the authority to order the plant to cease their discharge but they’re wringing their hands and holding their breath waiting to see what happens in the high courts. If Thunderbirds are go and the water board here grows a pair the plant will be forced to shut down or they can retrofit the cooling system so that it doesn’t affect the bay and contribute to a host of environmental hazards which plague the neighborhood. That’s right, Mirant has the ability to change, knowing the environmental toll being exacted, but it’s probably not the most cost-effective course of action for them to take.

Interestingly this isn’t the only reason that Mirant Corp. has been in the news. The company is run out of Georgia and has plants throughout this country, but until last year they operated in the Caribbean as well as the Philippines. The company began to sell off its international assets after “decid[ing] to focus on its US business and sell all its non-US assets” and in doing so ran afoul of Philippine law by running a deal through Hong Kong to avoid taxes to the government. Eventually, after the Philippines chapter of Mirant’s president testified in Congress that the company had no intention of avoiding taxes by selling through Hong Kong, a lot of money was doled out, some brave words said, and Mirant shrunk down to a domestic entity.

The Potrero Plant is a fixture in my old neighborhood, looking out over the bay. I’ve walked the grounds and I’ve stood on the intake/discharge gates drinking and hanging out. The entire area is a collection of rusting industry, abandoned warehouses, and concrete bunkers with warning signs on them about radioactive or otherwise unsafe waste. Growing up we used to hop fences, crawl through windows and prowl the backlots in search of excitement. I’ve watched my childhood retreat be torn apart, I’ve stood by helpless as big money brought in a stadium, lofts, trendy restaurants and finally an entire UCSF campus, and it makes me sad to walk along Tire Beach with its fucking Burning Man parties or Mission Rock with its fucking hipster-yuppies today. The trolly graveyard is empty, the dry-docks are crowded by nightclubs and the sense of being lost in a Mad Max world is forever gone. Still, Southeastern San Francisco, traditionally home to the poorest city dwellers, suffers an extraordinarily disproportionate burden of environmentally related illness and disease. The last thing anyone needs is an increased chance to develop a debilitating disease. I liked the plant, our old steam puffer, but my nostalgia is hardly worth the cost.

Picture of a burning toy by the power plant is by flickr user Petalum, the second picture is provided by The Chronicle and was taken by Lea Suzuki. Link to the SF Bay Guardian is only because they refer to alternative cooling systems by quoting a local ecological coalition and I gave up on trying to find a direct quote.

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