Sempra advised to 'fold 'em'
[Editor's Note: The following is an open letter to Richard D. Farman, chairman of Sempra Energy Resources in San Diego, from New Milford resident Peter Orenski.]

[Latest news..."It's Over"   Click HERE for epilog in the Spectrum]


Dear Mr. Farman:
You have lost the fight for the heart and mind of New Milford, Conn.
Yes, we both know there still is a chance you may win the approval of the Connecticut Siting Council to build your 500-megawatt power plant in our scenic and hitherto unspoiled valley.
But you have irretrievably lost the goodwill of our community. If you do end up in our home, you will be - ever after - a most unwelcome tenant.
A good businessman, like a good poker player, knows when to hold 'em. But a smart business leader recognizes lasting damage to his company's reputation and to its stockholder value. A smart business leader knows when to fold 'em. I urge you to be that business leader.
I wish you had taken the time to be with us at the first meeting of the Connecticut Siting Council Sept. 14, when New Milfordites had a chance to hear your experts being questioned by our attorneys and, more importantly, by members of the Connecticut Siting Council.
I don't know what your own folks told you about the meeting when they returned to your San Diego headquarters.
Chances are, since they work for you, they had to be a tad careful. I don't work for you. I don't have to be that careful. Let me tell you what really happened.
First, the good news. I was glad to recognize, on Sempra's side of the room, your project manager, Mr. Bill Keller, along with Mr. Mark Haarer - both gentlemen who have worked most capably and loyally to represent your company over the past 18 months.
I know that for a fact because, as they will tell you, I was one of the few businessmen in New Milford to be open-minded about your proposed power plant venture.
Actually, more than open-minded: In 1998 I met with them twice over some three months, trying to explain why Sempra was losing ground within the community, advising them to be more, MUCH more, forthcoming about their plant's safety and environmental impact.
We talked about turbine safety. About fire suppression. I introduced them to a local fire-suppression expert. They bought us lunch. We toured the proposed plant site. They listened well, took notes and showed concern. They were unfailingly polite.
More good news. At the Sept. 14 meeting, during the legal and technical sparring between our sides, I particularly watched your team leader, attorney Randell, handle the manifold interactions with grace and prudence and firm good sense. She was in charge of her brief and she represented you well. You have good people working for you.
But for all the good people you have working for you, Mr. Chairman, you have failed to win the hearts and minds of our townspeople. You failed to win our trust.
You've had 18 months to make your case with us and, frankly, you blew it. You blew the goodwill, you blew your chance to become a good neighbor. We do not want Sempra in our community.
Over all these months you have consistently failed to allow your people to answer our questions. Either that, or - after 100 years in the energy business - Sempra still doesn't know how to address basic safety and environmental issues.
Here's a lightbulb moment: Maybe you can't give us the data we want because you've never built a plant quite like this before. You intend New Milford to be your guinea pig for testing new technology, equipment or environmental effects. You're trying to get into our home under false pretenses.
Over all these months, you have failed to show respect for our questions. You stonewalled us every inch of the way. You delayed and played deaf. You mishandled communications.
We had to drag the truth out of you molecule by molecule for 18 long months - and you still haven't told us what we need to know.
You spurned our mayor's proposal to collect on-site meteorological data for one year. He asked you to look out for the health and safety of our community. You have not. And so you have not earned the right to come into our home.
The bad news became plain at the Sept. 14 Siting Council hearing. And the bad news was for all to witness.
Your game is up. It no longer matters whether your game all along was a shell game to stonewall everyone at every turn, obtain a construction permit, and then sell the project to another company for a healthy Sempra profit.
If that was your game, everyone is wise to it by now. It no longer matters whether your original game was to bully and browbeat the people of New Milford into accepting your power plant by repeating self-serving, non-responsive statements for as long as it took to sell us an electric pig in a poke.
Whatever your game was - guinea pig, shell game or pig-in-a-poke - our townspeople and the Siting Council could plainly see that after 18 months of trying, Sempra still could not or would not offer a clue on fundamental questions of environmental safety.
All you had to show for all that effort was a drumbeat of tired answers - the same Sempra-knows-best swill you've been feeding us for months. The same shopworn drill about a Fortune 500 company, about tax base and 23 new jobs. You have the drill down pat, you just didn't have any real answers.
After 18 months you still couldn't answer a simple question from the Siting Council's chair about your wind-tunnel tests: What are the prevailing winds at the New Milford site?
A simple farmer, the chair noted, would surely know that in order to work his land; and if he didn't even know that, he wouldn't be a very smart farmer. Where does the wind blow from in New Milford? "We don't know," said Sempra. Some farmer you'd make.
You couldn't tell the Council whence you planned to buy the ozone offsets you need for a construction permit in this ozone non-attainment area.
No ozone emission reductions - no construction permit. Pretty simple. Seems like something you might want to know when you're playing with your stockholders' $280 million chips.
Will you buy the offsets from New York? "We don't know. Maybe," answered Sempra. From New Jersey? "Dunno, maybe." From Connecticut? "Maybe. We don't know," said Sempra.
And so the Siting Council was there to confirm what New Milfordites had known and said and voted against for months. It was out and in the open. Whatever your game was, Mr. Chairman, your game is up. It's time to fold 'em.
And finally, had you been there, you would have heard and seen the people of New Milford address the Siting Council. Since you don't know us well, please take my word for it that we are normally a gentle people. Ours normally is a peaceful, at times even sleepy New England town. Sempra changed it into a buzzing hornets nest.
"Do these Sempra guys think we are a bunch of hicks?" said one neighbor as he prepared to speak. "They sure treat us like that," answered another. No one can remember such stirred-up passion in our town. Nor such outpouring of concern.
Never before was the high school gymnasium filled to such capacity: a crowd of more than 1,000. More than 100 people signed up to speak. I was proud of our town - you had to be there to understand. You weren't, so let me tell you about it.
On second thought, I won't. You can read about it in our newspapers. You'll find all of it there - the good, the bad and the ugly. If you need details, please call me up, I'll try my best to fill in any part of the picture you find unclear.
It's more important to conclude with this: You've been telling us about your Fortune 500 ranking, about the tax base, the jobs, infrastructure gains, lower energy costs. Thank you Mr. Chairman. But no thanks, not good enough.
What you needed most was our trust. And after 100 years in the energy business, after 18 months in our town, you failed to earn our trust. Respectfully, it's time to fold 'em.
Peter Orenski is a New Milford resident.


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