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The plant, he said, would also pay more than $3 million in property taxes each year, tripling what the city collects now. In a city with an unemployment rate nearly 50 percent higher than the countywide average, there would be hundreds of union construction jobs. He showed slides of the plant's sleek, modern design, modeled in part, according to the architect, after Simon Rodia's Watts Towers. Gould pledged that his company would be a "good community neighbor."
He talked about Sunlaw's involvement in nearby Vernon, where the company has two plants. Each year Sunlaw sponsors a career day at Vernon Elementary School, and last spring they took all the kids to Disneyland. Gould promised to donate $150,000 to South Gate beautification and other city projects and to build a sound wall to shield the Thunderbird Village retirement mobile-home park from the sound of both the plant and the nearby 710 freeway. The company had already sent several glossy mailers to residents near the proposed site, and funded the city's annual Cinco de Mayo festival and the South Gate Street Fair, a role it trumpeted in a two-page full-color center ad in The Bridge, a newspaper published by the city's Chamber of Commerce.
Still, some residents who attended the meeting were wary. Linda Forrester, who lives in Thunderbird Village and came to the meeting with her granddaughter, liked the idea of a sound wall ("We've really needed one for a long time"), but was skeptical about whether Sunlaw would keep its promises and suspicious of what the company expects in return. "I have a real hard time believing people when they speak," she said. "I want to see just exactly what they're up to, and whether this thing is already set in blood."
Opponents of the project hope not. Bahram Fazeli of Communities for a Better Environment, which has offices near South Gate in Huntington Park, says construction of Nueva Azalea would expose an overburdened community to even more health risk. "It sends a message," he said. "If you want to build something that could harm people, bring it here."
The organization has filed with the state as an official "intervenor" on the project. As such, the group has access to all materials related to the application and is allowed to participate directly in the hearings before the California Energy Commission, bringing its own witnesses and cross-examining witnesses for Sunlaw. That will give them the chance to officially challenge Sunlaw's claims, many of which, Fazeli said, are overblown or misleading.
In making its claims about the ability of SCONOx to clean the air, Sunlaw relied in part on its own projections of how much pollution it believes the plant will make. Those figures are now under review by the commission. The company also relied on readings of exisiting pollution levels. But rather than use data that is gathered regularly by the AQMD at pollution monitoring stations nearby, Sunlaw set up its own monitor, from December 3 to December 8, 1999, at J.B. Hunt, the diesel truck depot where the company hopes to build Nueva Azalea. The Sunlaw readings show higher ä maximum levels of some types of pollution than the readings over the same period at the AQMD stations. In its application to the commission, Sunlaw explains that it wanted more accurate information about actual emissions.
One of the emissions of particular concern to Communities for a Better Environment and the energy commission is PM 10, or soot. In its own application to the commission, Sunlaw says that once the J.B. Hunt depot is gone, soot levels will drop. It stands to reason, then, that any determination of whether the Nueva Azalea plant will be "cleaning" the air would have to be based on a measure of the pollution at the site without the trucks. Yet Sunlaw gathered its emissions data at a time when there were hundreds of semis rolling in and out of the depot. In a recent commission report, staff found that Sunlaw's pollution data "may have been heavily contaminated by emission from the diesel trucks." Fazeli concurred: "How can you include a major emission source in your analysis when you know that source won't be there? It makes no sense."
The commission staff also found that Sunlaw incorrectly measured the impact of the soot-like particulate matter that would come from the plant's cooling towers. The staff plans to conduct its own analysis.
If the project is built, the diesel trucking company will indeed move out of South Gate, but according to J.B. Hunt's plant manager, a portion of the operation will likely set up shop in nearby Commerce, another Southeast L.A. city with plenty of its own pollution woes. The hundreds of trucks required during the 20-month construction period would generate a lot of pollution of their own. Construction would also bring several hundred jobs, but once Nueva Azalea is open for operation, the largely automated plant would require only about 35 workers. Of those, Sunlaw would bring in as many as 12 existing employees, if the company decides to shut down its Vernon plant, according to Tim Smith, vice president of power development for the company. J.B. Hunt, which has more than 500 workers, is one of the biggest employers in South Gate.