Merger Plan by Electricity Firms Assailed

Times Staff Writer

The proposed merger of two Southern California electricity companies has local environmentalists and air-quality officials steaming.

They predict that consolidation of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric companies would leave emissions at two Oxnard power plants at higher-than-acceptable levels.

"It could impede the district's progress toward meeting federal and state clean-air standards," said W. Keith Duval, manager of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District's rules development section, which sets emission levels for business and industry.

The county already has the fourth-worst problem with atmospheric ozone in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It has 23 months to come up with a plan to cut ozone-causing emissions by at least 50% or face imposition of such federal controls as gas rationing or limits on pesticides, said Bill Mount, manager of planning for the district.

Concerns Dismissed

Officials of Southern California Edison, which operates electricity plants at Mandalay Beach and Ormond Beach, dismissed the concerns as alarmist. They noted that total levels of key emissions, including those that contribute to the ozone problem, are expected to decline under the proposed merger.

The officials also said they are being asked to comply with county standards that might not be enacted for two years.

"This will be a matter for discussion when the rules are proposed but not right now," said Michael Hertel, Southern California Edison's manager of environmental affairs.

The two sides are to square off today before the state Public Utilities Commission. It is soliciting comments on the potential effects of the merger in anticipation of a series of hearings that begin in April, 1990.

The meeting, at 1 p.m. in the lower plaza assembly room of the Ventura County Government Center, is the first stop on a four-city tour by the PUC.

Country's Largest

The merger would make Southern California Edison the country's largest investor-owned electric company. So far the debate on it has focused on antitrust issues.

Consumer groups have charged that the merger would reduce competition among power companies, allowing Southern California Edison to increase rates virtually unchecked. A San Francisco-based consumer advocacy organization called Toward Utility Rate Normalization has been in the forefront of opposition.

Several bills that would have blocked the merger on antitrust grounds have been proposed but have died in state legislative committees, said Gene Erbin, a consultant for Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento), the proponent of one such bill.

The office of Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp is examining the proposal in light of antitrust law, said Mark Urban, an attorney there.

Southern California Edison officials have said the consolidation would enhance competition by allowing the two companies to share technology. This would free power-line capacity for use by utilities that buy electricity from other companies, they said.

Work Force Reduction

The company said efficiencies such as a work-force reduction by attrition of more than 1,000 employees will lead to rate decreases until the year 2000. Consumer groups counter that the long-term impact will be higher rates for Southern California Edison, which serves Ventura County.

The merger would keep up with electricity demands for rapidly growing San Diego by increasing production at Edison plants that have been operating at less than capacity.

Among them are the Ormond Beach plant, which has been operating at only 25% of its capacity annually, and the Mandalay Beach plant, which has been operating at 51% of its capacity, Hertel said.

Production would be boosted by slightly more than 7% at the Mandalay Beach facility and nearly 12% at the Ormond Beach facility, according to an environmental assessment filed by the two companies with the PUC.

But because of a pollution-control device that would be installed at Mandalay Beach overall emissions of oxides of nitrogen--which react with sunlight to form ozone--from both plants would decline by 11%, the companies say.

"I think this should be welcomed, not criticized," Hertel said.

80% Reduction

Under the plan being considered by the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, however, Edison's plants would be asked to reduce emissions by 80%, Duval said.

The plants are the county's second-largest source of pollution, accounting for more than 18% of the oxides of nitrogen, Duval said. And of the three major pollution sources--the others are cars and oil-drilling equipment--Edison alone did not reduce emissions between 1983 and 1987 with pollution-control devices.

Duval acknowledged that Edison could come into compliance with Ventura's anticipated Air Quality Management Plan by adding another, more expensive pollution-control device at either plant. He said he fears that the merger would give the company an excuse not to do so, because it would already have added the costly but less-efficient device at Mandalay Beach.

"We're afraid that when it comes time to enact the rule, Southern California Edison will complain that it's not cost-efficient," Duval said.

Objects to Link

Hertel said the company doesn't think that the issues should be linked.

"If the district decides that the controls will have to be boosted that's another thing," he said. "It doesn't have to do with the merger."

He said the district should trust Southern California Edison to meet the standards when they are developed. He pointed to a recent agreement that the company struck with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and parts of San Bernardino counties. The power company has agreed to decrease emissions there by 76% in the next 10 years.

"We have a good history of working with air-quality agencies," Hertel said.

Meanwhile, such groups as Ventura County's Environmental Coalition object to fouling local air to benefit distant communities.

"We are concerned that, if as a result of the merger, SCE . . . increases the use of power plants in Ventura County, this will increase the already unacceptable burden of air pollution here," said Frank DePasquale, the group's president.

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