The California Public Utilities Commission in March denied the city of Norco’s request to underground the entire Riverside Transmission Reliability Project. (Canva Images)

The Norco City Council is set to discuss litigation involving the Riverside Transmission Reliability Project (RTRP) during the closed session portion of tonight’s city council meeting.

The project, which was allowed to move forward last month after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted 3-0 to deny the city of Norco’s petition to underground the project, will create a second power connection to the California electric grid to provide additional capacity for the city of Riverside to continue to serve its growing population.

“Since 2017, the city of Norco has communicated its concerns about the RTRP and has publicly opposed the construction of any above-ground transmission lines in and around River Trails Park along the Santa Ana River, as well as in adjacent neighborhoods outside of Norco,” the city said in a news release announcing its petition effort last fall. “The RTRP was proposed to provide the city of Riverside with additional power capacity to serve existing and projected electrical demand, however the approved above-ground transmission lines present significant hazards, specifically wildfire hazards, to surrounding communities.”

According to the release, there has been a 267% increase in wildland fires within the city limits of Norco since 2021, resulting in a “critical change” in the environment that the city said warranted a reevaluation of the decision to allow the RTRP to place above-ground transmission lines along the river.

In February of this year, the CPUC published Administrative Law Judge Robyn C. Purchia’s proposed decision denying the city’s request, and last month approved an amended decision to deny the city’s request.

“At our recent voting meetings, and in the preceding docket, and again this morning during this meeting, we’ve received numerous comments from residents in the region where the RTRP will be constructed and operated, as well as comments from elected officials who represent the region,” Commissioner Karen Douglas said at the March 21 meeting after the vote. “Many, though not all, commenters have expressed in their comments concern about wildfire risk associated with the project’s overhead transmission lines, and, of course, we take those comments seriously, and we take our role in addressing the risk of utility-involved wildfires seriously.”

According to Douglas, and the published decision, Norco’s petition was denied because it failed to justify why it was filed three years after CPUC’s initial decision regarding the RTRP and why the CPUC should revisit a previously evaluated and dismissed alternative for the project.

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“Under the commission’s rules of practice and procedure, if a petition like the one submitted by Norco is submitted more than one year after the effective date of the decision proposed to be modified, the petition has to justify the late submission,” Douglas said. “In this case, the decision finds that Norco did not meet its burden, because the concerns Norco raises in the petition were fully evaluated by the commission in the underlying proceeding, including in its environmental assessment of the danger of fires caused by or improved proximity to the project’s overhead transmission lines.”

Those who spoke in favor of the petition included Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA 41st District), Riverside City Council members Chuck Conder and Steve Hemenway and a number of residents from both Riverside and Norco.

“I won’t go further into what you’ve already heard are the primary concerns — substantially increased fire risks that have significantly changed in the recent years, loss of generational wealth in home values and increased insurance costs and the adulteration of pristine open green space should these lines go overhead,” Hemenway said. “But I would like to ask that you reject the [administrative law judge’s] decision, which is based on a timing technicality, and instead conduct an in-depth review of Norco’s [petition] based on its merits.”

Those speaking against the city’s petition included Nicholas Adcock, president of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, and Justin Scott-Coe, former chair of Riverside’s Board of Public Utilities.

“I have the deepest respect for those in my community who sincerely believe that it is preferable to further underground RTRP,” Scott-Coe said. “However, as the proposed decision clearly demonstrates, nearly 20 years of professional evaluation, two comprehensive public environmental review processes, and the approvals by state and federal regulatory agencies directly contradict this perspective.”

Despite the decision, the city of Norco has stated its intent to continue pushing for the entirety of the RTRP to be undergrounded, stating in a news release its support for AB 3076, which would suspend the project until an updated environmental impact study can be conducted.

Additionally, Norco Mayor Kevin Bash, ahead of the decision, said it was his intent to explore ways to change how the CPUC operates.

“I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve faced with this thing,” he said at the March 20 Norco City Council meeting. “So at some future date I want to explore…what can we do to make [the CPUC] an elected body, because I think they need to answer to the people and not to [Southern California Edison] and their big bucks.”

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.