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Water usage tops list of concerns at Cogentrix meeting

Hundreds fill Maccie Conroy Building at the fairgrounds to ask critical questions of Cogentrix and state officials
News Editor
   Hundreds of Jefferson County residents plus countless others from Central Oregon poured into the Maccie Conroy Building at the Fairgrounds last Wednesday to voice their concerns in front of Cogentrix and state agency officials over the proposed 980-megawatt power plant 12 miles south of Madras off Ramms Road.
   Most in attendance at the standing-room only meeting identified themselves as opponents of the proposed $400 million plant, which would be the largest electricity generating facility of its kind in the state.
   Their top concern: water usage.
   Cogentrix has come forward with several conceptual plans for mitigation, including conservation with the irrigation districts and the possible purchase of stored water from the Ochoco Reservoir.
   The North Carolina-based company's proposed natural-gas fired power plant, if built, will use roughly 5,030 acre feet of water per year out of ground aquifers.
   "Canal seepage has been recognized as an area where we have a unique opportunity to help the irrigation districts with unlined canals to conserve water," said David Newton, a local water rights consultant hired by Cogentrix. "They say if you save water, we'll let you use some of it."
   Mary Zemke, founder of the group Stop Cogentrix, asked the power company officials how much public opinion would impact their proposal.
   "Believe it or not, this is not the first time we've been confronted by a meeting like this," said Jef Freeman, Cogentrix's Vice President for Corporate Communications, who encouraged attendees to take interest in a citizens advisory committee. "We are keenly interested in public input."
   "How many letters would you like?" Zemke responded.
   Catherine Vanhorn, an Energy Facility Analyst with the Oregon Office of Energy who helped facilitate the dialogue, told the gathering that the Energy Facility Siting Council needed input on the standards it uses to review Cogentrix's site certificate application, which the company submitted Nov. 30.
   "This is not a popular answer," Vanhorn said. "But you're emotional feeling -- how you feel -- is not one of the standards the siting council uses."
   The public information meeting, sponsored by the Oregon Office of Energy, brought several state agency officials currently reviewing Cogentrix's site certificate application to the table to answer questions independently of the power company.
   However, one man questioned whether they could be bought and asked the panel if they would sign a statement promising to never accept a job from Cogentrix.
   "I feel that some of your comments are accusatory," responded David Stewart-Smith, the Energy Facility Siting Council's secretary. "I would be happy to sign a form but I don't think that question should even be asked."
   Several citizens also voiced their concerns over labor and whether locals would be hired to build and operate the plant. Cogentrix officials say they'll employ 400 during the plant's construction and 25-35 when it operates regularly.
   "We were approached by unions five or six months ago but it's too early to talk agreements," said Frank Erwin, the company's Vice President of Development. Responding to a similar question later in the meeting, he said, "Guys from Alabama are going to cost a heck of a lot more than local labor."
   Others in the audience urged Cogentrix officials to consider altering their proposal to reflect the interests of the area residents.
   One man, who introduced himself as someone who thought he was coming to an AA meeting, said, "Why can't you do it air cooled?"
   Another individual told the Cogentrix representatives they'd be more popular if they used sewage water for cooling, but the power company officials said those options were not feasible and would make the project not economically viable.
   Some voiced air quality concerns, sparking the power company employees on hand to respond with graphs and charts that suggested the plant's emissions would account for less than 1 percent of the total emissions in the tri-county area.
   Few of the approximately 40 individuals fortunate to have a question-asking opportunity hinted at being in support of the power plant. One that did, however, posed his question as needing a black and white answer.
   "There's all this talk about this plant taking Jefferson County's drinking water," said Roger Tathwell. "Is that true or is it untrue?"
   "The answer is `no,'" Newton responded, saying that there is 900 billion gallons of water in the Deschutes aquifer system and that Cogentrix' well won't reach down to the depths where Opal Springs water is drawn from. "There's no question about the water's availability."
   Still, some weren't convinced and voiced their skepticism toward the company they feel is going to profiteer at the expense of Jefferson County.
   "I think you gentlemen are very smug with your crystal ball," said Dave Stalker of Bend. "I don't trust this science."
   Freeman said Oregon was one of the most stringent states when it came to regulating power plants and that his company would be held in check by the state agencies.
   "We're not going to come here and capriciously do things," Freeman said. "If we act irresponsibly we're through as a company."
   Afterward, Office of Energy officials said they were pleased with the turnout and the questions asked.
   "This is exactly what we needed," Stewart-Smith said. "The applicant got a lot of good questions they have to answer and now they have to prove to us they can answer them."
   But some in attendance left the meeting discouraged.
   Troy Boyd, owner of Great Earth Natural Foods, said she didn't have her questions answered as she was No. 73 on the speaking list. Specifically, she wanted to know whether the Energy Office followed up on the company after the plant was built.
   Zemke said her group had maybe only one-third of its questions answered and they weren't pleased with those answers.
   "I wanted to hear that the public would have a specific and measured impact on the permitting process," she said. "I believe a majority of people in Jefferson County are opposed to the plant based on the number of petitions we are getting everyday."
   Alan Mills, a business agent for a local plumbers and steamfitters union, said he didn't believe Cogentrix had any intention to sign a union contract.
   "Their past history says so," Mills said. "We can't wait six months for a contract while our people stay home and watch `Oprah.'"
   Richard Neff, Cogentrix's Manager of Environmental Affairs, said he thought the company had done its best to answer citizens questions. He encouraged more dialogue.
   "I would like people who are our critics to come up with scientific questions and concerns and we'd be happy to address them and modify our plan," Neff said.