'Astonished and Appalled': Hayward Residents, Leaders Decry State's OK to Restart Power Plant That Exploded in May

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An aerial view of the Russell City Energy Center in Hayward in April 2020.  (MiguelVM360/YouTube)

Despite concern among Hayward city leaders and local residents, the energy commission charged with enforcing California's energy standards approved a permit to restart a Hayward power plant that had an explosion in May.

The California Energy Commission heard testimony Thursday from residents and city leaders opposed to the reopening of the Russell City Energy Center, located in Hayward's mostly industrial west side and just a little over a mile from the edge of residential neighborhoods that house mostly low income Black, brown and immigrant residents of the city.

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"The community of residents that live in proximity to this power plant are disproportionately burdened by multiple pollution sources and of characteristics that make them more sensitive to that pollution," Hayward City Manager Kelly McAdoo told California Energy Commission members.

The California Public Utilities Commission and energy commission staff said reopening the Hayward power plant will allow the state to provide more reliable energy to California's strained power grid in the face of unprecedented heat in recent months, highlighting the tension between California's crucial energy needs and the safety of mostly Black and brown neighborhoods bearing the brunt of climate change.

"We are balancing many competing threats right now," said David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission. "There's obviously concern about the local safety issues ... But there are also health issues around grid reliability."

But locals said they're not confident about the plant's safety amid outstanding questions about what caused a late-night explosion at the plant two months ago, prompting evacuations.

Just before midnight on May 27, the plant — owned by Houston-based Calpine Corporation — erupted into flames after a steam turbine broke apart, sending chunks of metal flying as far as 1,200 feet away and puncturing the roof of the city's Housing Navigation Center.

Within a matter of days, McAdoo told California Energy Commission members that Calpine was at work on an application to restart the power plant at half capacity, which is expected to release twice as much carbon per unit of energy produced.

"We acknowledge the state's need for adequate power supply, but this should not be accomplished at the cost of community safety and detrimental environmental impacts," McAdoo said.

Residents said they were concerned about the plant's impact on the air quality for the surrounding community, and its impact on the mostly low-income immigrant communities that live nearby.

"As a resident of the community who lives within a 2-mile radius of the power plant I am extremely concerned about the safety of my family and the quality of air that we breathe," Alwine Knowles wrote to energy commissioners. "If you lived in this community, this would be totally unexceptable." [sic]

In 2019, California regulators found problems at the Russell City Energy Center, including corrosive piping and defective equipment. Hayward city leaders say they were not made aware of the 2019 California Public Utilities Commission audit until a week ago. Calpine says none of the issues identified in the 2019 report were to blame for the May explosion.

"There has been a disturbing lack of transparency on the part of Calpine and regulatory authorities at the California Public Utilities Commission," said Chuck Finnie, communications director with the city of Hayward. "This will remain a concern until we see a change."

Hayward Fire Chief Garrett Contreras told energy commissioners his department has had difficulty accessing the facility to identify potential hazards to the community, and that he has been frustrated by his department's lack of jurisdiction over areas of the plant identified as problematic in the 2019 CPUC audit.

Two investigations into the explosion are still ongoing, according to Calpine. Hayward city leaders urged energy commissioners to block the company's permit until the community is assured the cause of the May explosion has been identified and addressed. 

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Barbara McBride, Calpine director of strategic origination and development, told energy commissioners that the root-cause analysis into the May explosion will be completed by late summer or early fall.

"Frankly, we are astonished and appalled at this application and your staff's recommendation of approval," said Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday. "This application puts profit and feeding the grid ahead of the safety of our residents and people working in or at proximity to this seemingly unsafe power plant."

Under the approved configurations, McBride said Calpine expects the plant to reopen sometime early to mid-August.

As part of a stipulation to the approved permit, Calpine has agreed to meet with Energy Commission staff and the Hayward Fire Department to discuss any needed modifications to the site in case of an emergency.

"The city of Hayward is confident that the California Energy Commission has a greater appreciation of the need for closer oversight of the power plant and that it should be done in partnership with the city of Hayward and our Fire Department," Finnie said.