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Power Struggle : Rockwell, Edison Jolted by Residents’ Demands to Reroute High-Voltage Poles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One spring day, Paul Yost, 35, hopped on his bicycle and decided to follow the high-voltage power lines that snake through the city. He wondered where they went, what they did. The sizzle bothered him. So did the blue sparks that fly off the lines.

He tracked the poles in a four-mile loop around the city and ended up at Rockwell International Corp.--only 200 yards away from the Southern California Edison plant that powers the lines.

Now, Yost and other political novices are taking on the corporate giant and the public utilities company in a quest to get Edison to reroute the 66,000-volt lines, which serve only Rockwell (other area lines carry 12,000 volts).

Some transmission towers for the Rockwell lines are in neighbors’ back yards, near bougainvillea vines and directly across from second-story balconies. The lines run outside an elementary school, a couple blocks from the beach and over the bedroom of Yost’s 3-year-old daughter.

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“They’re noisy and ugly and potentially dangerous,” said Yost, a physician. “I’m determined to see them go.”

The lines originally ran from a closed former power plant near the beach in a more direct link to Rockwell’s 105-acre world headquarters. More than 25 years ago, when Edison opened a new power plant, officials kept the old power lines, as well as dozens of transmission towers and poles.

Edison officials say they are working on a rerouting proposal but have to iron out details with Rockwell and the owners of a field on which the new poles would go. According to the parties involved, the job is not as simple as residents see it: Why can’t Edison just restring the power lines across the street to Rockwell?

“Excuse me!” said resident Annette Robinson, pointing from Edison to Rockwell on a recent afternoon, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “ This is where we want [the lines] to go.”

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Edison officials say it’s not as easy as it looks.

“We’re trying to work out the details to see if this is something we can do,” said Jerry Dominguez, a regional manager for Edison.

Rockwell officials say the lines are essential to their daily power supply. Officials say they will study whether rerouting the lines would affect their service and will continue to meet with Edison officials and residents to discuss possible options. Rockwell, the city’s largest employer with 2,000 workers, does government, defense and commercial projects.

Edison says the lines provide backup power to Rockwell. And, if rerouting details are worked out, Edison technically could provide the same service via a shorter route.

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Another possible snag: The proposed route change would cross a 183-acre field known as the Hellman Ranch property. Edison would have to work out an agreement with the property owners to string the lines across their property.

The property owners say they want to work with Edison and residents, but any plan would have to be “fair and reasonable,” said Hellman Ranch representative Dave Bartlett. “So far, the alternatives offered by Edison do not meet that definition. We have talked to them but we’re not closing in on any solution.”

Also, it is unclear who would pick up the nearly $1-million tab to move the lines, Dominguez said. The cost would not be passed on to ratepayers, he added.

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Dominguez says he understands why the residents dislike the lines.

“They don’t look real great--I’d be the first one to admit that,” said Dominguez, a Seal Beach resident.

But Yost and other residents say the lines are more than just unsightly. They say the extra-tall poles--nearly twice the height of others, or about 80 feet--pose a particular danger in earthquakes or in the event of a careening car (Edison says the poles are unlikely to fall, even in a major quake). And some residents are scared that the sagging lines will fall (Edison says some lines are supposed to sag, as part of engineering specifications).

Robinson, 50, said she does not entertain on her patio because guests worry about the crackling lines; the noise worsens in fog and dampness. She had no idea how loud the lines were when she moved in four years ago. At first, she didn’t want to complain.

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“I thought, ‘This is electricity. That’s going to someone else. How rude to say they’re annoying and to be so selfish and say people down the line can’t have electricity,’ ” Robinson said.

Then, she found the lines went “nowhere” and provided only “backup power” for Rockwell.

“Why should I be at high risk for no reason?” she asked.

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She and Yost have collected more than 300 signatures calling for Edison to reroute the lines. They plan to present the signatures to the City Council later this month and request a resolution in support of their position.

Also, in the past three months, Yost has been distributing the “Power Line News,” a newsletter he produces on his home computer with updates on the rerouting campaign. He distributes the newsletter to more than 300 residents along the current route.

Neither Robinson nor Yost had been involved in politics or civic issues before. Yost isn’t quite sure what snapped for him, what made him get on his bicycle six months ago in search of answers. He finally came up with a simple answer.

“It’s my community,” he said. “It’s my home. I want it to be a nice, safe place to live.”

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