Citizens contesting planned power plant in Clarkson

In the latest turn in a long-running saga, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) along with Minister of Energy George Smitherman are meeting with local citizens in Mississauga, in the hopes of garnering public acceptance of an 850MW natural-gas plant which may be up and running at Royal Windsor Road and Winston Churchill Boulevard by 2013.  Local politicians from Mayor Hazel McCallion to Mississauga South MPP Charles Sousa are on record as  opposing to the project, citing the results of the Clarkson Airshed Study (CAS) which found pollution in excess of federal standards within the south-western part of Mississauga.

On Tuesday March 3, the Ontario Racquet Club will see these two sides face off once again, as the government insists that the power plant is necessary in order to close dirty coal plants elsewhere in the province, while local groups and politicians remain steadfastly determined to axe the project because of the health threat that it represents to the community.  Respected resident Doctor Boyd Upper has compiled air quality data and health statistics that demonstrate the measurable harm a natural-gas plant would cause to people living in the Clarkson area.

There have also been numerous resolutions calling for a review of the site as a candidate for the project based upon the CAS, notably from the ad hoc Clarkson Airshed Study Advisory Committee (CASAC), which included Dr. Upper, MPP Sousa and local city councillor Pat Mullin, and also from the Mississauga Ratepayers Network (MIRANET). With health emerging as the primary concern in the communitys opposition, the Liberal government and the OPA are attempting to show how pollution in Clarkson will decline despite the addition of a major industrial polluter.

JoAnne Butler, vice-president of electricity resources at the OPA, pointed out that this new facility will not be a burden to the air shed [because] it will not operate constantly but only for short periods of time, and will provide residents with clean, reliable power during peak periods of demand. She again cited the closure of coal plants such as Nanticoke as improving air quality downwind in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), but did not address Dr. Uppers concerns about added pollutants and carcinogens being released into the local area.

The situation is made more difficult by the fact that the plant is being conducted as a private-public partnership with Sithe Global Power, a New York based firm, which means that the Ontario government is charged with attracting corporate investors while simultaneously balancing the public interest.

For example, the OPA is responsible for selecting a winning bidder to build an 850MW natural-gas plant somewhere in the southwest GTA. Once that bidder is selected however, the OPA is then legally responsible to that winner as a business partner, meaning that it must defend that companys interest in the project.  The meeting on March 3 is one of the last opportunities that the public will have to face the government before a final bidder is selected by the OPA. The Sithe proposal also has a number of points in its favour, such as having already obtained regulatory approval from the province.

To further complicate this process, the Ontario government, through the OPA, has recently made major revisions to its electricity demand projections for the next twenty years. Following the lead of US states such as Texas and New York, which are both working to reduce peak demand by 20 to 25 per cent by 2015, the government is adopting strong conservation and demand management measures in its energy strategy.  In 2006, the government committed to reducing peak electricity demand by 6300MW (or 23 per cent) by 2025, down from a predicted one per cent annual increase prior to 2006. This appears to significantly alter the amount of generating capacity needed in the future. In fact, in 2007 and 2008, energy demand fell two per cent on average. Despite this new projected reduction in demand, the government has not reviewed or altered its plan for supply since 2006, and still intends to build several natural-gas generating stations in and around Toronto in the coming years.

For all these reasons and more, building a natural-gas plant in Clarkson does not make sense to many people, and yet the project continues to move forward. Hundreds of concerned citizens are expected to show up on March 3 to oppose the Sithe Project, but it remains to be seen whether or not the government will actually listen.