A delicate species of endangered butterfly that’s perilously close to extinction in an Antioch wildlife refuge could hamper energy industry plans to build and operate a controversial cluster of nearby fossil fuel burning power plants.
Pacific Gas & Electric’s 530-megawatt Gateway Generating Station recently began operating next to an aging power plant in Antioch. Mirant Corp. plans to build the 760-megawatt Marsh Landing power plant next to the Gateway facility. Radback Energy, meanwhile, secured California Public Utilities Commission approval last month to build a 586-megawatt power plant in nearby Oakley.
Operation and construction of the natural gas-fired facilities, which will help PG&E power San Francisco and the Bay Area using fossil fuels, is supported by local business groups and political leaders but opposed by community and environmental activists. They argue that the air-polluting facilities are not needed and will cause and exacerbate illnesses in disadvantaged communities.
The Wild Equity Institute, an environmental nonprofit fighting against plans for the plants, claimed in court documents that operation of the Gateway Generating Station violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act because the nitrogen that it spews into the air threatens the survival of the endangered Lange's Metalmark butterfly and endangered plants. The group says it will attempt to use the same legal arguments to oppose the construction of other nearby power plants.
While it has long been known that burning fossil fuels pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it creates a greenhouse effect, federal government scientists during the past five years have only just started to understand the harmful fertilizing effects of nitrogen that’s also released when the fuels are burned.
Nitrogen released from power plant smokestacks and vehicle exhausts fertilizes nutrient-poor soils that dominate parts of the Bay Area. The nitrogen promotes the growth of invasive weeds, which choke out local species, including plants that provide food and habitat for native butterflies and other animals.
The power plant cluster is close to the 55-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, which contains remnants of desert-like habitat that more than 100,000 years ago stretched to the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles.
In 1980, the refuge was the first of its kind to be established to protect endangered plants and insects. It provides most of the remaining habitat for three endangered species: The Lange's Metalmark butterfly, Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Contra Costa wallflower. The endangered species are threatened with extinction by the effects of weeds, occasional fires, trampling trespassers and other threats.
The riverside dunes are home to the only known population of Lange's Metalmark butterflies, and estimated numbers of the slow-flying insects plummeted from 25,000 early last century to 45 in 2006, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures show. Those numbers have recovered slightly in recent years through intensive agency and volunteer efforts.
The butterflies lay their eggs on naked-stemmed buckwheat, which is the only type of plant eaten by their caterpillars. But nitrogen pollution that's blanketing the dunes could be fertilizing invasive weeds that are choking out the native buckwheat, threatening the survival of the butterflies.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the nation’s wildlife refuges, told the California Energy Commission in letters late last year that it’s concerned about the impacts of nitrogen emissions from the proposed Oakley and Marsh Landing power plants on the endangered species that inhabit the nearby dunes.
The service is also worried about the effects of nitrogen emissions from the Gateway Generating Station, although it isn't currently being consulted about the threats, San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex spokesman Doug Cordell said.
“We are very concerned about nitrogen emissions at that plant and at any plant where it potentially threatens endangered species,” Cordell said. “That species of butterfly is very endangered – it’s in a very delicate position. That refuge is a very fragile ecosystem, and it’s the only place in nature that these butterfly can live.”
Cordell said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like access to companies’ power plant data to determine how the facilities' nitrogen emissions affect the sand dune habitat.
A Notice of Intent to Sue was filed in December by the Wild Equity Institute in an effort to compel the U.S. EPA to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of Gateway Generating Station emissions on endangered species. A related court hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court on Friday morning.
The power plant was built using permits that opponents claim were expired and the institute alleges that the EPA failed to consider risks to endangered species when it agreed to allow the power plant to operate through a proposed settlement agreement.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the power plant operators could be forced to install expensive technology, reduce electricity generation, fund butterfly-breeding programs or take other measures to protect the insects from the effects of nitrogen emissions. Some activists hope those measures will be onerous enough to scuttle or curtail the energy companies’ power plant plans.
PG&E disagrees with the institute's legal arguments and points out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consulted with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about the Gateway Generating Station’s impacts on endangered species in 2001 when construction of the facility was proposed under a different name by a rival energy company.
"We're committed to being an environmental leader, and it's our policy to comply fully with the letter and spirit of all applicable environmental laws and regulations," spokesman Bryan Swanson said. "The EPA did, in fact, consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act in connection with permitting the facility in 2001."
Cordell, however, says that the federal government did not understand nitrogen impacts on endangered species at that time.
"This is knowledge that we’ve only gotten on top of in the last three or four years," Cordell said. "Even if the lawsuit is unsuccessful, we have made our concerns known to the EPA about this issue. We would like to work with them and we would like to work with PG&E. We’ve done that elsewhere."
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It has been changed.