By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
SCONOx, THE DEVICE AT THE HEART OF THE Nueva Azalea debate, is already in use at several small power plants around the country, including a 28-megawatt plant just north of South Gate, in the city of Vernon. The technology works by treating nitrogen oxide (NOx), one of the two main ingredients of smog. NOx, produced by the plant as a byproduct of burning natural gas, is diverted into emission stacks lined with hundreds of three-inch ceramic cubes containing a honeycomblike collection of smaller cubes. The devices, coated with platinum, act as a catalyst, converting NOx into its less harmful components. Some nitrogen oxide does slip through, but at levels far below the 2.5-parts-per-million ceiling dictated by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency charged with ensuring that the L.A. air basin eventually meet its state and federal pollution-control mandates.
But even with the new technology, Gould's claim that the plant would clean the air is questionable. Nitrogen oxide is just one type of pollution power plants create. If Nueva Azalea is built, Sunlaw's scientists predict it will emit, among other things, 3.6 tons of volatile organic compounds (toxins like those in paint thinner) per year, as well as an average of one-third of a ton per day of a type of particulate matter known to emissions wonks as PM 10 and to the general public as soot. These are the tiny dirt particles that can be inhaled into the lungs and which have been shown in numerous studies to contribute to a range of respiratory problems, including asthma, especially in the elderly and in children.
Though the air in the L.A. basin is much cleaner than it was even a decade ago, the region is still far too polluted to be healthy, particularly in areas like South Gate, which sits at the heart of Southeast L.A. Last spring, the South Coast Air Quality Management District released the most comprehensive study of urban toxics ever conducted in the L.A. basin. It found that diesel exhaust caused more than 70 percent of the area's pollution, and that the risk of pollution-caused cancer throughout the region is 1,400 per million people. The greatest risk, according to the study, is in South Central and Southeast L.A. In 1998, the nonprofit environmental-advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment analyzed the cumulative health risk of a range of pollution in Southeast L.A. The study, called "Holding Our Breath," concluded that while individual sources of pollution may not have the potential to make people sick, when pollution sources in the area were looked at together, the risk shot above levels considered acceptable by the state. Three of nine major polluters identified in the study are located in South Gate. The residents of Southeast L.A., the report stated, are "breathing a toxic soup."
Technically, according to federal and state mandates, until the air is clean, all new polluting industry in the L.A. area is forbidden. In reality, a system has been created under which new projects can buy credits from companies that shut down or from existing projects that don't pollute as much as the state allows them to, and so have extra credits to sell.
The Sunlaw Corporation has been profiting from this system for years, selling the unused pollution credits from its cleaner-than-standard power plant in Vernon. Those credits are then used by other power plants, enabling them to create the pollution Sunlaw avoided. Now Sunlaw plans to use those credits to help cover any pollution it creates at Nueva Azalea.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME SUNLAW HAS TRIED TO build a power plant in South Gate. The city's proximity to large amounts of reclaimed water and a major natural-gas pipeline, as well as its permissive attitude toward heavy industry, make it, in Sunlaw's eyes, the perfect place for a power plant.
In the summer of 1999, Sunlaw offered to clean up the contaminated site of a former city dump and build a plant there. But South Gate City Councilwoman Xochilt Ruvalcaba strongly objected. "They wanted to make this decision in closed session," said Ruvalcaba, who also works as an aide to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. "I said, 'The people have a right to know.'" Ruvalcaba recorded a message about the proposal and had it automatically phoned to the homes of South Gate's 22,000 voters.
"Yes, we do need more power here in California, and I acknowledge that," Ruvalcaba said. "But South Gate is not the place for it. We've already given enough. It wouldn't be happening if we lived in Beverly Hills." About 200 residents showed up at the next council meeting to speak in opposition to the project, and the council tabled Sunlaw's offer indefinitely.
When Sunlaw returned a year later, the company took a different tack, setting its sights on a diesel-truck depot owned by J.B. Hunt Transportation Company and located just east of the 710. This time, as Sunlaw president Gould demonstrated in his presentation on that smoggy summer evening in the town auditorium, Sunlaw had done its homework.
After making his "Our plant will clean the air" claim, Gould reminded his audience what the AQMD study had shown: that diesel exhaust is a leading carcinogen in the L.A. basin. Nueva Azalea, which Sunlaw estimates will cost more than $300 million to build, would displace the truck depot, ridding the city of a major source of diesel exhaust.