Decision 17-05-036 May 25, 2017
Before The Public Utilities Commission Of The State Of CaliforniaIn the Matter of the Application of Southern California Edison Company (U338E) for a Permit to Construct Electrical Substation Facilities with Voltage over 50 kV: Mesa 500 kV Substation Project. / Application 15-03-003
(Filed March 13, 2015)
ORDER DENYING REHEARING OF Decision (D.) 17-02-015
In this Order, we dispose of the application for rehearing of Decision
(D.) 17-02-015 (“Decision”), filed by the City of Montebello.
Pursuant to the Commission’s General Order (“GO”) 131-D, Southern California Edison Company (“SCE”) (U388E) submitted its Application (A.) 15-03-003 for a permit to construct (“PTC”) the proposed project known as the Mesa 500 kV substation Project (“Project”) on March 13, 2015. SCE requested authorization in its PTC Application to do the following: (1) construct the proposed Mesa 500 kV Substation and demolish the existing Substation within the City of Monterey Park; (2) remove, relocate, modify and/or construct transmission, subtransmission, distribution, and telecommunications structures within the cities of Monterey Park, Montebello, Rosemead, South El Monte and Commerce and in portions of unincorporated Los Angeles County; (3) convert an existing street light source line from overhead to underground between three street lights on Loveland Street within the City of Bell Gardens; (4) install a temporary 220 kV line loop-in at Goodrich Substation within the City of Pasadena; and (5) perform minor modifications within several existing substations. These modifications would be located within the substation’s existing fenced perimeters, and the associated work would be similar to Operation and Maintenance activities SCE currently performs.
On April 16, 2015, the Commission’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates (“ORA”) filed a protest. On April 23, 2015, SCE filed its reply to ORA’s protest. On July 28, 2016, the California Independent System Operator Corporation (“CAISO) filed a motion for party status, which was granted by e-mail ruling on July 29, 2016. Bay Area Municipal Transmission Group (“BAMx”) filed a motion for party status on October 27, 2016, which was granted by e-mail ruling on October 27, 2016.
Pursuant to GO 131-D, a PTC is conditioned on our determination that the project complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) and the Commission’s policies requiring the use of low-cost and no-cost measures to mitigate electric and magnetic field effects (“EMF”). CEQA requires the Commission, as the lead agency in this proceeding, to conduct a review and identify the environmental impacts of the project, and ways to avoid or reduce environmental damage, for consideration in the determination of whether to approve the project, a project alternative, or no project. Where it is anticipated that the proposed project will create significant and immitigable environmental impacts, the lead agency must prepare an environmental impact report (“EIR”) that identifies the environmental impacts of the proposed project and alternatives, designs a recommended mitigation program to reduce any potentially significant impacts, and identifies, from an environmental perspective, the preferred project alternative.
In addition, pursuant to GO 131-D and Decision (D.) 06-01-042, the Commission will not approve a project unless its design is in compliance with our policies governing the mitigation of EMF effects using low-cost and no-cost measures.
The Commission’s Energy Division issued the Draft EIR (“DEIR”) on April 29, 2016 and issued the Final EIR (“FEIR”) on October 7, 2016. A prehearing conference was conducted on November 4, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. Hearings were held on December 9, 2016, in San Francisco, California. Opening briefs were submitted on December 21, 2016. Reply briefs were filed on December 28, 2016.
On November 14, 2016, the assigned Commissioner issued a scoping memo identifying the following issues to be determined in this proceeding:
1. What are the significant environmental impacts of the Proposed Project?
2. Are there potentially feasible mitigation measures that will eliminate or lessen the significant environmental impacts?
3. As between the proposed project and the project alternatives, which is environmentally superior?
4. Are the mitigation measures or project alternatives infeasible?
5. To the extent that the proposed project and/or project alternatives result in significant and unavoidable impacts, are there overriding considerations that nevertheless merit Commission approval of the proposed project or project alternative?
6. Was the EIR completed in compliance with CEQA; did the Commission review and consider the EIR prior to approving the project or a project alternative; and does the EIR reflect the Commission’s independent judgment and analysis?
7. If the Proposed Project is delayed past the 2020 timeframe, are there additional mitigation measures that may be required to maintain electrical reliability in Southern California?
8. Is the proposed project and/or project alternatives designed in compliance with the Commission’s policies governing the mitigation of EMF effects using low-cost and no-cost measures? and
9. Are there any safety issues pursuant to Pub. Util. Code § 451?
On February 16, 2017, we issued D.17-02-015. The Decision granted SCE a permit to construct the Mesa 500 kV Substation Facility Project, with mitigation identified in the Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Plan attached to the Decision. As the lead agency for environmental review of the project, the Commission determined that the EIR for the project met the requirements of CEQA. The Commission rejected the environmentally superior alternatives to the project, as identified in the EIR, as infeasible. (D.17-02-015, pp. 2, 41 [Conclusion of Law 7].)
On March 17, 2017, City of Montebello (“applicant”) filed an application for rehearing of D.17-02-015. On that same day, applicant also filed a motion for party status. The rehearing application challenges D.17-02-015 on the following grounds: (1) the EIR’s statement of project objectives is overly technical and complex; (2) the FEIR’s project description is misleading and inconsistent; (3) the FEIR fails to analyze project features that may have a significant impact on the environment; (4) the EIR’s analysis of air quality impacts relied on an improper methodology; (5) the FEIR’s evaluation of the mandatory “no project” alternative was inadequate; (6) the FEIR’s failure to evaluate urban decay impacts and environmental justice concerns violates CEQA; (7) the EIR’s mitigation measures are unenforceable and deferred; and (8) the Commission’s rejection of project alternative 3 based on cost considerations was improper. SCE and CAISO filed responses to the rehearing application on April 3, 2017.
We have carefully considered the arguments raised in the application for rehearing, and are of the opinion that good cause has not been established to grant rehearing.
A. EIR’s Statement of Project Objectives.
Applicant’s first allegation of error is that the Statement of Project Objectives includes highly technical and complex language that prevents the Draft EIR from being readily understandable by decisionmakers and the public, as required by CEQA. (Rehearing application (“Reh. App.”), pp. 4-5.) This allegation of error is without merit and has been addressed previously by the Commission. (See FEIR Vol. III(A), pp. 66, 67.)
In its responses to applicant’s comments, the Commission discussed the allegation that certain language was too complex to be readily understandable. The Commission stated:
This comment [that the objectives are overly complex or technical] does not raise any environmental issues regarding the Draft EIR or its analyses and conclusions. The commenter’s opinion that the objectives of the proposed project give an overly technical and complex narrative is noted and will be provided in the record for the decision makers. The project objectives are discussed in detail in Draft EIR Section 1.2.4, “Detailed Description of CPUC Project Objectives,” which provides context for and detail about the development of each of the three objectives.
(Responses to Comments, October 2016, p. 66 (A6-6).)
Applicant asserts that the Project Objectives for the 500 kV upgrade of a 220 kV substation are too technical because the objectives reference NERC, WECC, and CAISO standards, as well as a reference to the acronym “OTC,” for once-through cooling. Applicant further claims that even though explanation is given in the DEIR, and the Commission responded to these comments, the explanation is insufficient. (Reh. App., p. 4.) Applicant’s assertion that the project objectives are too complex is unfounded.
CEQA requires that the statement of objectives should be clearly written. (CEQA Guidelines § 15124(b).) Although a substation upgrade like the Project is by its nature complex, the DEIR provides a detailed layperson discussion of the project objectives and a clear explanation of the terms utilized. For example, Section 1.2.3 explains the CAISO transmission planning process. (FEIR at 1-4 to 1-5.) Section 1.2.4 contains a detailed description of Commission Project Objectives. (Id. at 1-5 to 1-8.) This section also includes Table 1-2 that describes the NERC, WECC, and CAISO standards as well as a section explaining once-through cooling and detailed explanations of Commission Project Objectives. The Commission cited to the appropriate sections of the DEIR containing this information in its responses to applicant’s comments, quoted above.
In addition, the CEQA Guidelines make clear that absolute precision with respect to technical detail is not required. CEQA Guidelines sections 15003(i) and 15151 articulate the fact that CEQA does not require technical perfection, but rather adequacy, completeness and a good-faith effort at full disclosure. Courts reviewing an EIR do not pass upon the correctness of an EIR’s environmental conclusions, but only determine if the EIR is sufficient as an informational document. (See Kings County Farm Bureau v. City of Hanford (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 692.) CEQA Guidelines section 15151 further provides that for EIRs, “[t]he courts have looked not for perfection but for adequacy, completeness, and a good faith effort at full disclosure.”
Applicant’s allegation of error fails to address the detailed description of project objectives contained in Section 1.2.4 of the FEIR. For example, applicant claims that “the acronym ‘OTC’ is defined as ‘Once-Through Cooling,’ but this definition itself lacks meaning to the public.” (Reh. App., p. 4.) However, Section 184.108.40.206 of the FEIR goes into significant detail to explain, in plain language, the OTC policy, the impending retirement of OTC units, and the resulting consequences on electric reliability in the Los Angeles Basin. For example, Section 220.127.116.11 states:
By December 31, 2020, it is expected that approximately 4,250 megawatts of electric generation in the Western Los Angeles Basin will be retired to comply with the State Water Resources Control Board OTC policy, which aims to eliminate as much as possible coastal or estuarine water usage for cooling. Some units will be retrofitted to use air cooling or otherwise modified to comply with the order. However, a substantial number of OTC units are slated to be retired. OTC generation shutdown would stress the existing transmission system and impact its ability to provide reliable electric service beginning January 1, 2021 (CAISO 2014) under peak load conditions.
(FEIR, Section 18.104.22.168.) The Statement of Project Objectives also provides a plain language description of the reliability consequences associated with the retirement of the OTC units, the applicable reliability standards, and the need to maintain uninterrupted electrical service. (FEIR, Sections 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52.) The FEIR effectively explains these complex issues in a plain language description of project objectives.
Thus, for the reasons discussed above, applicant’s allegations of error regarding the Statement of Project Objectives is without merit.
B. FEIR’s Project Description.
Applicant next alleges that the EIR’s Project Description is misleading and inconsistent. (Reh. App., pp. 5-7.) Applicant lists three specific examples of allegedly misleading and inconsistent terminology in the Project Description, including the 220-kV Transmission Features, the number of Lattice Steel Towers, and the description of the height and width of the LSTs. (Id.) These allegations of error are without merit.
Applicant asserts that the FEIR’s Project Description is misleading and inconsistent due to some minor inconsistencies in a complex, approximately 87-page project description. As examples, applicant points out the use of the number “two” as compared to the phrase “up to three,” as well as the fact that a range of tower heights was considered in the environmental analysis because final structure height is dependent on final engineering. (Reh. App., pp. 5-7.) Applicant also points out an instance in which some components are crossed out in a table, but not on a list related to the table.  (Reh. App., pp. 5-7.) These claims amount to pointing out minor inconsistencies which do not amount to legal error.
In particular, the claim that analyzing a range of tower heights leads to unknown environmental impacts is incorrect. In an EIR, it is standard practice in such circumstances to consider the higher end of the range to assess impacts. This approach is evidenced by the EIR’s use of SCE’s PEA visual simulations (noted as the source for the simulations in the Aesthetics section):
…computer-generated visual simulations were developed using engineering design data for the Proposed Project. This data … includes a range of possible heights for proposed transmission and subtransmission structures. These proposed structures are simulated at the tallest end of the height ranges in order to portray the Proposed Project’s greatest potential visibility. Should the new transmission and subtransmission structures be lower than the greatest height in the range, these Proposed Project elements could be less visible than portrayed in the visual simulation images.
(SCE’s PEA at 4.1-48.)
In its rehearing application, applicant cites several cases involving CEQA which are inapposite to the present instance. For example, in San Joaquin Raptor Center v. County of Merced (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 645, 655, the project description represented there would be no increase in mining, but provided for substantial mining increases if the project were approved. In County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185, 190-191, 197-198, the project description changed throughout the document and was small in scope in some places, while much larger in scope in others. Neither of those factual scenarios are applicable in the present instance. The Mesa Project Description, which is essentially an upgrade to an existing substation on SCE fee-owned property, is finite, stable and consistent throughout the Project Description and analysis in the FEIR. (See, e.g., Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 1036, 1055 (contrasting the fluctuating project scope in County of Inyo as inapplicable when compared to a project that is accurate, stable, and finite throughout the EIR process).)