By Allison Jarrell

The city of San Juan Capistrano filed a lawsuit against the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in federal court on Friday, June 23, continuing the city’s battle against the approved San Diego Gas & Electric substation expansion adjacent to residential neighborhoods.

SDG&E’s substation expansion in San Juan was approved unanimously by the CPUC on Dec. 15. The expansion, which is part of SDG&E’s South Orange County Reliability Enhancement (SOCRE) project, involves rebuilding and upgrading a portion of its transmission infrastructure. The project aims to create a redundant electrical system that would rely on two substations rather than just the current facility in Talega.

At the time of the approval, CPUC commissioners said that despite concerns from some residents, the project is the best solution for ensuring greater electrical reliability in South Orange County.

In response to the CPUC’s decision, the City Council voted unanimously in closed session on May 16 to retain legal services from Aguirre & Severson LLP, and to draft a complaint to the CPUC.

In the 37-page suit, Attorney Michael Aguirre argues that the CPUC violated the city’s right to “equal protection and due process,” adding that the approved five-year construction project will “have an admitted adverse impact on the city and its residents and will also increase utility rates.” Specifically, the suit states that the “SOCRE project would cause localized temporary increases in ambient air pollutant concentrations.”

“The city has a duty to protect the residents in the Casas Capistrano and Las Brisas communities from land uses that threaten residents’ safety and general welfare,” the lawsuit reads.

The city alleges that even though “evidence showed the project was unnecessary,” the CPUC approved it because SDG&E has “achieved regulatory capture” of the commission—a “form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.”

The suit specifically points to an additional option for the SOCRE project—Alternative J—that was identified as “the new environmentally superior alternative” to the proposed expansion back in 2015. The alternative involved expanding SDG&E’s existing Trabuco substation in Laguna Niguel, which would “add an additional source of 230-kV power into the South Orange County 138-kV transmission system.”

A revised Draft Environmental Impact Report that was recirculated in August 2015 described Alternative J as “geographically distinct from the applicant’s proposal, meets most of the basic project objectives, and reduces or avoids impacts identified as significant in the Draft EIR.”

In light of the new alternative presented, Administrative Law Judge Darwin E. Farrar proposed denying the substation expansion in San Juan in September 2016. On Nov. 14, 2016, Farrar published a revised proposal that would deny the expansion and authorize a “no project alternative.”

However, the CPUC ultimately rejected Farrar’s recommendation and instead adopted CPUC President Michael Picker’s alternate proposed decision to approve the expansion. Picker argued that Alternative J was not feasible because SDG&E would not be able to comply with “construction safety standards” at the site and the project would not be constructed in a timely manner “due to the need for additional electrical transmission studies.” The rest of the CPUC agreed with Picker and voted unanimously to approve the SOCRE project in December 2016.

In response to the suit filed by the city, Duane Cave, SDG&E external relations manager, said “the South Orange County Reliability Enhancement project has gone through five years of extensive regulatory review,” and SDG&E believes “it is essential to maintaining reliable energy service in Orange County.”

“We continue to stand behind the SOCRE project and will oppose any effort to delay the construction of this much-needed infrastructure improvement,” Cave said.

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