The Sentinel funds wrap-up: Behind the back-patting, something extraordinary

The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Governing Board meeting Friday was some of a self-congratulatory show. The main attraction was the final vote that will provide about $50.9 million for 26 air quality improvement funds in the Coachella Valley.

The money represents emissions mitigation dollars that Competitive Power Ventures paid for its 800-megawatt Sentinel natural gas peaker plant, now nearing completion in North Palm Springs, as seen in the December aerial photo below.

Sentinel

A lot of the public hearing before the vote on the funds was taken up with potential grantees thanking the board for their awards, speaking quickly about the benefits their projects will provide and speaking about the AQMD’s staff’s extraordinary efforts to work with local groups on their applications.

Not everyone was happy. Bob Terry, an area resident who opposes the plant, brought up issues about Riverside County Supervisor John J. Benoit’s support for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ cross-valley parkway and whether that constituted a conflict of interest. 

The proposed 46-mile pedestrian, bicycle and electric vehicle parkway, stretching from Palm Springs to Coachella, snagged more than a third of the money, $17.4 million.

Parkway 1e11 Map

The fact that two projects submitted by African-American led organizations did not make the recommended list — and resulting objections from their leaders — also caused some discomfort. Jack Pryor, CEO of Access Solar, pushed his case particularly hard, noting that his company’s proposal for more than $40 million– including plans for a plant to produce hydrogen fuel and install solar on homes in the region — fell only 2 points short of the 70 points needed to get on the list of qualifying projects.

Benoit said there was no conflict of interest since–although he was an early and very public advocate of the parkway–he had not written letters of support for any project or read any of the proposals prior to the vote, even when friends pushed for their favorite projects. AQMD Executive Director Barry Wallerstein also noted the Access Solar proposal for solar installations had cost more than other projects submitted.

But under all the back-patting and last-minute pleas, something more genuine emerged — a sense that the whole process around the Sentinel funds has been extraordinary and something of a game changer for many involved.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, a board member, noted that the AQMD had never committed so large a chunk of money to a specific geographic region such as the Coachella Valley.

The outreach to the community, pushed by both Benoit and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, and the level of community response was also outside the AQMD’s comfort zone.

The Administrative Committee’s five and a half hour public hearing in Palm Desert in October gave board members a chance to hear from local residents and see the communities that will be affected by the plant — also a rarity.

When community members from the east valley traveled to Diamond Bar in December to oppose a $920,000 grant to pave roads at the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians’ Resource Recovery Park in Mecca, the board pulled the money and reallocated it to home retrofit projects the residents favored.

“This raised the bar in terms of including the community,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice group. “We feel we were included in the process; we believe the Governing Board heard us.”

San Bernardino Supervisor Josie Gonzales, another board member, addressed east valley residents at Friday’s meeting in Spanish, congratulating them on their courage in coming to board meetings to speak out and encouraging ongoing participation.

Speaking before the unanimous vote to approve the Sentinel projects, Mayor Dennis Yates of Chino, vice chair of the board, said, ”In my 20-plus years, I have never seen the outreach conducted by this group (the AQMD) and the response by Coachella Valley residents. It was awe-inspring.”