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Newspin

Pueblo Going Nuclear?

(Originally printed in PULP)

Everyone’s aglow about the prospect of nuclear power coming to southern Colorado. Given the ongoing plant disaster in Japan, it seems the timing for such a proposal could not be worse, though the plans for the 24,000-acre Clean Energy Park southeast of town were moving ahead well before then.

Lawyer and local resident Don Banner is at the helm of the proposal, which would develop in three phases. At present, he’s seeking rezoning for the giant swath of land in eastern Pueblo County for a PUD, or Planned Unit Development.

As Banner himself noted, there are scores of factors that would have to fall into place for his plan to work, only one of which is local support. But he claims, too, that the only way to bring together other green energy components of the park. such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, is to go nuclear, to the tune of a 1,000 megawatt plant, give or take a few watts.

There’s plenty of hyperbole around such an explosive issue, so let’s set aside the Simpsons-like images of fish with three eyes long enough to get a little bit more perspective on what’s at stake.

PRO

It’s easy to hedge at plans for a nuclear power plant, reacting with a knee-jerk sense of fear. From Chernobyl to Three Mile Island, the fallout from a nuclear plant failure ain’t pretty. But Banner argues that the fears are generally overblown. Chernobyl’s substandard engineering doomed it from the start, and Three Mile Island – the only nuclear plant to fail on US soil to date – cannot be connected to any actual deaths, according to Banner.

The new plant would be far superior to either of the aforementioned plants, he says, and it would be located in a relatively remote area, buffered on all sides by thousands of acres of the Clean Energy Park. As for security, the storage facilities where the spent fuel rods are kept after use have been tested against the heartiest potential air attacks, standing firm in the face of fire.

On the upside, we would enjoy hundreds of Davis Bacon-wage jobs over the several years it would take to build the plant, followed by up to a hundred permanent jobs that pay well above average for power plant work. In addition, more than a dozen interest groups organized by Banner, from local schools to nonprofits, would share in hundreds of thousands of dollars donated back to the community.

The average Joe Consumer would stand to benefit from Banner’s proposal to contractually require the utility company that builds the plant to sell power generated to Pueblo residents, the price of which would be equal to the cheapest rate offered to any other community. Pueblo would benefit from the taxes the plant would push back into the local economy, and Banner suggests that the number of secondary jobs due to the new plant could grow into the hundreds.

Another big question is water.  We’re more or less in the middle of the desert here, and nuclear plants require water to keep the fission process under control. Though Mr. Banner points out that the volume of water needed will depend largely on what kind of plant a developer can place on the land, he projects that consumptive water use (the amount that can’t be returned directly to the water system) could be as low as 125 acre-feet per year.

CON

It’s well and good to claim no lives lost during the Three Mile Island catastrophe, but some studies have projected that upwards of 5,000 will eventually die because of complications related to radiation exposure from the site. This is not to mention the risks to the livestock, land and other natural resources which could be affected for hundreds of years or more, should an accident happen.

So the silos where the radioactive spent fuel rods are stored (on-site, by law, for at least sixty years) may be sturdy, but are we inviting terrorist attacks by having such materials lying around? And, current US law requires that the uranium be removed from reactors and stored before it reaches weapons-grade level. This means it still has the potential to be converted to weapons-grade uranium, which seems to invite trouble.

Most of the construction work would be temporary, and yet we’d be left to contend with nuclear waste for generations. And who is responsible for decommissioning the plant after its projected 60- to 80-year life? If history is an indicator, the plant operators will walk away and leave local taxpayers with the bill.

Pueblo is developing a reputation for being the dumping ground for power plants other folks need but don’t want in their own back yards. How much of the power created will actually stay in Pueblo? And doesn’t having the plant in our county warrant a little bit more of a homeboy discount?

Jobs are fine, but if folks don’t have water to drink, what good is economic development? How many hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland will dry up as a result of water purchased for the power plant, and how many agricultural jobs will dry up as a result? Will the water that passes through the plant damage the streams into which it is released? Is nuclear power our last, best hope to stem the effects of global warming, or are we just passing on the problem in another, possibly more dangerous, form to future generations? Can we afford the water? Are we even sure the net to Pueblo is positive when all is told?

And the debate rages on.

My Take

Comparing the proposed plant to the one in Japan impacted by a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami really isn’t fair. Neither is in the cards for Pueblo. And yes, modern plants have many more safeguards than those from decades past. But aside from moral, safety and security arguments, there’s the question of what we want Pueblo to be.

Will we continue to produce for wealthier communities what they need, yet refuse to provide for themselves? And will we use our limited water resources to do so, for the promise of a fleeting handful of jobs and some negligibly cheaper power? Or are we something more?

Our bountiful sun and wind position us to be industry leaders in renewable energy, setting a standard that others around the world will long to follow.  Do we want to invest in decades-old technology that may be at its apex, or should we focus on developing energy technologies that have more potential without the negative environmental impact?

We’ve gotten a start with the likes of Vestas and the proposed solar arrays here and in the San Luis Valley. But we have to believe that we’re more than a repository for the rest of the state’s undesirable industries.

Finally, we’ve created this beat of need for power with our own unbridled consumption habits. If we’re really worried about what the risks of such power sources will be for any community – not just ours, the only real solution is to reduce consumption.

It’s been said that the two-fold path to happiness includes both making more and needing less. Only one is a path that leads anywhere. We have to choose our own path.

NewSpin@ PuebloPULP.com

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NewSpin: House of the Rising Stench
Written by Christian Piatt
December 2010

There’s a home down the street from us that’s affectionately known by neighbors – particularly those within smelling distance – as “The Toilet.” On warm days, the distinct smells of decaying garbage and slow-rotting feces waft through the air.

Gross, right? Try living by it.

The Toilet, which some might call a rental property, sits at 1724 N. Grand and is the bane of the block. In a neighborhood that has been designated “historic,” The Toilet stands alone as a monument to squalor. From the couch on the front porch to waist-high weeds and crumbling façade, the place looks like it should be condemned.

How can anyone live in such conditions? For most of the past decade no one has lived there, which is part of the problem.

The house, title to which is under the name of Robert P. Mourning, was consistently rented until mid-2003. After the last tenants moved out, the utilities were disconnected and the house sat vacant for the next six years. In the meantime, homeless people regularly broke in and made camp – bathroom included – inside the house, alongside wild animals that found shelter within the decaying walls.

For years, neighbors would occasionally mow the lawn and pick up trash left by homeless visitors in an effort to keep the place from looking even worse. The owner was nowhere to be found, and would not return messages.

When some renters finally moved in, the carpet, which by now was drenched in sewage from a backup in the lines, was tossed into the backyard along with animal excrement, garbage and other goodies. What wasn’t thrown into the yard or the garage was burned in the fireplace, creating a noxious stench that caused several neighbors to call everyone from the sheriff to the health department in an effort to get the place cleaned up.

Oh, and although the new family moved into the place, they did so without reconnecting any utilities, including water. So they used candles to light the space despite the many clear code violations. When regional building staff finally deemed the home uninhabitable until utilities were turned back on, the family simply tore down all warnings and camped inside until the sheriff’s department threatened them with serious consequences if they were found on the grounds except to clean it during the day.

More than a month later, the utilities were reinstated and the young family moved back in, along with at least eight cats and a dog. There seemed to be a revolving door on the house, with various newcomers crashing there from one night to the next. Meanwhile, the animal excrement was tossed into the backyard to mingle with the carpet and other garbage.

You get the picture.

A number of complaints were filed with the health department, and a few times Mr. Mourning was ticketed. But there were a couple of problems with the system. First, the fines cost significantly less than any of the repairs would have been to remedy the issue. Second, no one with any authority followed up to enforce the violations.

Instead, Mourning’s paid a few hundred dollars to satisfy citations over the past decade, and the festering heap of a house continues to decay before the community’s eyes and noses.

When challenged by neighbors of such properties about the relatively impotent code enforcement power the city and county seem to have in such cases, officials balked, saying that their hands are tied by state regulations. This, however, is false, since local communities can establish their own codes and consequences, so long as they are at least as strict as the state’s.

It would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but Mourning himself owns more than a dozen properties around town, many of which are in similar shape – or worse. If he were the only culprit, a handful of run-down homes wouldn’t be enough to create a larger negative perception of our city. But he’s not.

So, if slumlords have little incentive to change their ways, and our local officials hedge at giving more teeth or funding to the anemic code enforcement we currently have, what’s a resident to do? For one local citizen, the answer is to take the cause online.

Lori Winner started a Facebook page called Pueblo Houseofshame, inviting people to post photos of decrepit properties with the hope that community pressure would push owners and residents to clean up their act. One can also email photos taken from the street (please, no trespassing) to pueblohouseofshame@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , along with the address and details about the condition of the site, and Lori will post it for all to see. [See sidebar.]

We all know that Pueblo struggles with an image problem with many tourists and residents from the north. But until we become more proactive about making the change ourselves, and unless regional building officials and other code-enforcement bodies get serious about making it painful for owners to let blight continue, whom can we really blame for the bad rap we have, other than ourselves?

An Update

Over the weekend prior to publication, Lori Winner, moderator of the Pueblo Houseofshame page on Facebook, posted that she had received a “proverbial shot over the bough” and was considering shutting the page down.

In response to P.U.L.P.’s inquiry, Ms. Winner said she had received word from her husband – Jay Winner, Executive Director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District – that Pueblo police captain Troy Davenport wanted to speak to her. Though her husband gave Davenport her number, Ms. Winner claims he didn’t call her.

The week of November 20th, Ms. Winner wrote to me, stating, “[My husband] Jay’s board member told Jay on Tuesday that Davenport said that ‘police were laughing because they are going to drive by her houses.’ On Friday I [received] 3 citations on 3 different rental properties,” though she claims her properties all are “nice” and that, “The violations are ridiculous, and easily fixed at no cost.” She added, “however I am seeing this as a warning shot.”

Following her husband’s call to one of the board members who had heard the conversation noted above, Ms. Winner received a call from Capt. Davenport, who denied that her properties were being targeted in retaliation for her publicity against run-down properties and the lack of enforcement by local officials.

Davenport told P.U.L.P. that the reason he originally intended to call Ms. Winner was to invite her and her husband to observe how the code-enforcement process works in person. However, when seeking permission for this, other officials from the city told him the Winners already had been offered such an opportunity, so Davenport saw no point in calling her.

Davenport also said that he has no recollection of any such comments being made at any meeting where he was present. He also clarified that the three items issued to Ms Winner’s properties were notices of violation, and not citations, which means the property owner has ten days to remedy the violation without further action.

Davenport said that it is the policy of the code enforcement department to respond to any citizen complaint, including the cases involving Ms. Winner. He also noted that, since all complaints are allowed to remain anonymous, he had no way of knowing who had lodged the complains against Ms. Winner’s properties.

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