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MEXICALI, Mexico - A hulking 37-acre display of tubes and silos is sending electricity to thousands of homes in the western United States, but this power plant isn’t on U.S. soil — it’s in northern

Mexico’s desert landscape, just three miles from the border.

The plant’s owner, San Diego-based Sempra Energy, says it found an ideal site, with open land, water, fuel and transmission line capacity. But environmentalists contend that Sempra, and the owners of a second plant nearby, built them in Mexico to avoid U.S.-mandated pollution controls, and they argue that the plants threaten to contaminate water and air across the region.

“You could pick up this plant lock-stock-and-barrel, move it to California, and it would pass any environmental test,” responds Octavio Simoes, who oversees engineering and construction of new power plants for Sempra, a gas producer and utility.

Sempra’s $350 million plant is currently sending power to the United States in test runs. It plans to start commercial operations to 600,000 customers this summer. The second plant, a $750 million facility built by InterGen, a joint venture of Bechtel Group Inc. and Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos., will produce enough power to light up 1 million homes on both sides of the border.

Environmentalists opposing the plants have taken their concerns to court. On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge began hearings in a suit by the Border Power Plant Working Group, an environmental group, against the U.S. Energy Department and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The suit charges that the plants violate the National Environmental Protection Act and other federal rules. Neither Sempra nor InterGen is named as a defendant — the Energy Department approved transmission lines from the Mexicali plants to El Centro, Calif., while the Bureau of Land Management granted rights of way.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Irma Gonzalez ordered the Energy Department to more closely examine potential environmental damage from the plants. The decision offers a rare example of a U.S. judge regulating a Mexican operation, if only indirectly.

The lawsuit raises questions about whether other energy companies will resurrect plans to build along Mexico’s northern border, either for U.S. or Mexican customers.

“The one thing you don’t have right now is regulatory certainty,” said Stephen Raab, InterGen’s vice president for health, safety and environment. “You can’t go in, design something, get financing and then find out at the 11th hour that the rules have changed.”

Sempra, which has always planned to export all of its power to the United States, began construction in early 2001, when California appeared to be suffering an acute power shortage.

The company said it was drawn to the area because of its infrastructure advantages, and by the fact that the Mexican government issues permits in about six months, compared with nearly two years in California.

Critics disagree. “I just don’t believe what they’re saying,” said Steve Birdsall of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District, which polices air quality along the U.S. border, north of Mexicali.

In any case, Sempra says its pollution controls on carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide would pass muster in California or any other state.

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