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De La Torre, who says he has taken no position on the plant proposal, works as a corporate contributions project manager for Southern California Edison, which controls the transmission lines that would carry the power generated by Nueva Azalea. De La Torre said he has consulted with both South Gate's city attorney and with attorneys at Edison, who have advised him that there is no conflict of interest because power transmission is regulated by the state's Public Utilities Commission and "Edison has no choice in the matter" of whose power it carries.
The mayor said that given Edison's size (it is one of the five largest companies in Southern California), the Nueva Azalea plant is as insignificant to his company as "a flea on an elephant's butt." He also pointed out that the city of South Gate hired its own, independent environmental consultant, who will be issuing a preliminary report on the Nueva Azalea proposal in mid-October. De La Torre, whose political experience includes a stint as an aide on energy and commerce to Congressman Richard Lehman, has vowed to remain unbiased on the project, though he says the city has to be realistic about the type of development it expects to attract. "We're a city with a lot of heavy industry surrounded by other cities with a lot of heavy industry, and you've got to take that into consideration," he said. "I see it as my role to get the information to the people and let them decide."
THOUGH THE CITY VOTE ON THE POWER PROJECT may say a lot about the character of the community and its leaders, in the end it will probably carry little weight on the fate of Nueva Azalea. That decision lies exclusively with the California Energy Commission, established by the Legislature in 1974, in part to buffer the siting process from NIMBYism and political maneuvering. The five-member, governor-appointed commission now decides the fate of all major power plants in the state. "The fact that a number of people want or do not want a project is not the issue," says Commissioner Robert A. Laurie, a land-use attorney who was first appointed by Governor Pete Wilson. On the other hand, he says, "If we had those same people walk in and say there are problems with traffic, aesthetics, noise or air quality, and if they provided some rational basis for their concerns, that would be relevant."
All power-plant developers must submit to an application process that includes thousands of pages of analysis of -- among other things -- air and water quality, public health, traffic and noise. Only recently has environmental justice become a codified concern for the commission, which bases its review on guidelines issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Nueva Azalea is one of just two projects that has applied for permission to build in a community with such a large minority population, according to Jim Adams, the commission's expert on environmental justice. Once the commission staff weighs in, the application goes to the five-member commission, which hears testimony from both supporters and opponents.
The entire process is supposed to take a year, but since deregulation, the commission has been swamped with new applications and the process has taken anywhere from 13 months to two years and five months. Nueva Azalea's 12-month review began in August 2000 and is scheduled to wind up in August 2001. Sunlaw hopes to have the plant up and running by the summer of 2003.
This summer's statewide energy crunch and the subsequent San Diego rate spike riled residents and spurred nervous legislators to pass SB 970, an 11th-hour antidote that cuts the application time in half, raising concerns that power plants will be pushed through with little more than a glance. Sunlaw had initially led the city to believe that it would not seek an accelerated review. But at a hearing on Monday, an attorney for the company asked the commission to cut the review time for Nueva Azalea to 10 months. Anne Simon, staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment, argued against the change, saying it would rob the public of the chance to scrutinize the project. Such a change, she said, would be " inconsistent with the commission's commitment to public participation." The commission will make a decision on the scheduling change within the next two weeks. But some environmentalists fear that in the current political climate even the plants that receive the full-year review may not be subject to sufficient scrutiny.
Only once in its 25-year history has the energy commission flatly rejected an application. That proposal, for the Crockett Cogeneration plant near Martinez in Northern California, was later resubmitted and accepted. Since deregulation, all five plant proposals that have completed the commission's application review have been approved.
BEFORE WAYNE GOULD WRAPPED UP HIS PRESENtation to the people of South Gate, he acknowledged that Nueva Azalea might give them cause for concern. "Your experience with heavy industry demands that you be skeptical of the promises that we make," he said. "We stand willing to extend a covenant. If we break that covenant, you may shut us down."
With all the focus seemingly directed at plant construction, there's been little talk of alternative energy sources, improvement of the state's antiquated power transmission lines, or even conservation, all of which could ease pressure to build new plants. "There is no question that the best solution for our growing electricity needs is energy conservation," said Gail Ruderman Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If our state were to make a real effort to conserve energy, it could make an enormous difference."
The next public hearing on Nueva Azalea is scheduled for October 18 in South Gate. Additional information on the project is available at www.energy.ca.gov, the energy commission's Web site.
Research assistance provided by Lovell Estell III and Debbie Picker.
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