National environmental organization sues SRP over alleged public records violations

Jeremy Beren

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Randolph residents and activists protest SRP's Coolidge plant expansion proposal outside ACC headquarters on April 12.Jeremy Beren/NewsBreak

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Coolidge, Ariz.) — The oldest grassroots environmental organization in the United States has filed a lawsuit against the Salt River Project, alleging the Tempe-based utilities company has repeatedly violated Arizona's Public Records Act.

In a 44-page complaint, Sierra Club explained it is filing a statutory special action in Maricopa County Superior Court to "secure the unconditional right" to review records pertaining to SRP's controversial fossil fuel-burning Coolidge Generating Station in Pinal County. Despite an Arizona Corporation Commission panel rejection in mid-April, SRP is attempting to press ahead with an expansion proposal for the facility.

One of Sierra Club's key claims is that SRP is voluntarily withholding information pertinent to the Coolidge plant and its integrated system plan (or "ISP") process. The lawsuit says Sierra Club has been trying to retrieve these records since last September, and SRP has insisted on at least two occasions that it is not subject to Arizona's Public Records Law as an "agricultural improvement district."

Sierra Club says it learned in November that SRP had hired external firm E3 Consulting to look into whether the company could achieve a portfolio of zero-carbon resources as a potential alternative to the gas-burning Coolidge plant. SRP did not provide the results of the E3 study to Sierra Club upon request, deepening a rift that escalated further following last Thursday's filing.

In an emailed statement provided to NewsBreak,Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter director Sandy Bahr said that SRP, as a public company, is legally-compelled to make public records available for inspection upon request from members of the public.

"(SRP's) lack of compliance dismisses the needs of customers and communities to have the information they need to effectively advocate for the clean energy future they deserve," Bahr said. "SRP’s actions make it abundantly clear why a people-centered campaign is needed to champion transparency, accountability, and clean, renewable energy. SRP should immediately produce all of the public records requested."

Sierra Club, which counts 12,000 Arizonans as members of its organization, is among the parties registering dire concerns about the project and how it will impact the approximately 250 people living in adjacent Randolph. The expansion would take the gas plant directly into the historically-Black community, and residents there have yet to budge despite SRP's willingness to offer millions of dollars in concessions — they do not want the plant expanded.

"SRP’s rate payers have a right to know how their electricity is generated, and the people of Arizona and communities like Randolph should have the information they need to weigh in on those decisions," Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest attorney Sam Schnarch said in a statement emailed to NewsBreak. "SRP’s attempts to dodge accountability under the Public Records Act are flagrantly illegal, and their lack of transparency can only harm the residents and environments of Arizona."

On Monday, SRP responded forcefully to Sierra Club's lawsuit in a statement sent to NewsBreak. The company dismissed the suit as "without merit" and is preparing to "vigorously defend" itself against claims it skirted Public Records law.

SRP has claimed it provided more than 4,300 pages of information relating to Sierra Club's requests and shared "tens of thousands" more pages containing data and documentation pertinent to the Certificate of Environmental Compatibility proceedings that took place at the ACC building in April.

"While SRP is prohibited from disclosing certain records that are confidential by statute, it otherwise endeavored to fully respond to Sierra Club’s requests on a voluntary basis," the statement read. "SRP will continue to demonstrate its commitment to providing transparency into its resource planning efforts and hopes to move past unfounded accusations and work collaboratively with Sierra Club."

SRP serves approximately one million customers in the Phoenix metro area alone, and the utilities giant has stated repeatedly that expanding the Coolidge gas plant is urgently necessary to accommodate the growing demand for power outside Phoenix.

Last summer, SRP announced its intention to install 16 new gas-fired turbines at the Coolidge plant. The company's expansion proposal barely passed its own board when it was put to a vote last year. The plan has since been met with fierce resistance from local environmental justice groups and from Randolph residents concerned about serious disruptions to quality of life, including but not limited to air and noise pollution from the nearby construction.

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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