Battle lines are drawn on divisive GRU issue


Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 2:03 a.m.

It felt more like a pre-war strategy session than a meeting for the environmentally concerned.

But with the City Commission poised to consider plans for a new coal-fired power plant later this month, area residents are gearing up for an anticipated battle at City Hall.

And for many, Jan. 31 is looking more and more like D-Day.

For more than two hours Saturday, Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee member and City Commission candidate Rob Brinkman sought to rally area residents opposed to Gainesville Regional Utilities' power plant plans.

"What we need are real alternatives," Brinkman told the 25 or so residents who gathered to hear his pitch at the United Church of Gainesville.

"The City Commission needs to hear from each and every person in this room, and your friends and neighbors," he said.

The battle lines are being drawn over an issue some have called the biggest environmental decision to face Gainesville policy makers in decades.

To meet its forecasted energy shortfall, GRU has proposed a series of upgrades and projects it says will keep prices low while protecting area air quality.

The plan calls for construction of a 220-megawatt coal-and-wood burning incinerator and retrofits to the current Deerhaven facility on U.S. 441.

At the commission meeting later this month, city leaders are expected to consider whether to authorize the engineering phase of the project, a move many fear would make the construction of a new plant inevitable.

Mark Spiller, a strategic planning analyst and lone GRU representative at the public meeting, said his employer's proposal is the best option for meeting Gainesville's future energy needs.

"We have explored, in my opinion, all the alternatives that are out there," Spiller said. "It's a matter of semantics whether there's been enough. The main focus is the environmental and economic impact, and how fair the plan is to the community.

"It's a balance of all these that has led us to the current proposal."

But residents in attendance Saturday say GRU hasn't convinced them of the need for burning more coal, and vowed to take their concerns to the commission.

"If we go and start talking about alternatives we'd like to see, they're going to say 'We've heard all this,' and they are going to go ahead with" approving the plant, said Gainesville resident Len Eisenberg.

"The only way we could get them to reconsider is if we decided on a strategy and use this core group that we have today to bring out more people."

Brinkman, who is seeking a seat on the city commission, did not call his community meeting a campaign stop, and his opponents - Commissioner Rick Bryant and Diyonne McGraw - were not in attendance.

Reached by telephone after the meeting, however, both Bryant and McGraw said the issue is certain to be on the agenda as the March election nears.

The candidates also expressed concern that focusing only on environmental impacts could lead to higher utility bills.

"There are those, and Brinkman is one of them, who would like to see an increase in energy prices" as a means of conservation, Bryant said.

But, "I think affordable electricity is a very important issue to this community."

McGraw agreed.

"I support environmental issues, but we have to keep in mind that everything is going up, except wages. People can't afford an increase in utility bills."

Given the political climate, then, critics of the plan acknowledged Saturday it won't be easy convincing their elected officials to see things their way.

"My sense is the commission, as it is currently constituted, will vote for this GRU plant," Eisenberg said.

Still, opponents said they will continue to push for alternative solutions to the city's pending energy shortfall. Options they said the commission should investigate include increasing GRU's forecasted use of wood to generate power, improving energy conservation incentives and exploring options for renewable power generation.

"GRU is putting economic interests ahead of the health and safety and welfare of people," Eisenberg said at the conclusion of the weekend gathering.

"It's time that our priorities change."

Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026.

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