Downey to Power Plant: Drop Dead

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

For the past seven months, the company that wants to build a power plant the size of Dodger Stadium has wooed the city of South Gate. Sunlaw Energy Partners has sponsored picnics in the park, sent out glossy, bilingual mailers and made lots of promises. They’ve pledged to create new jobs, build a sound wall, donate $150,000 for community-improvement projects and pay more than $3 million in taxes. They’ve even claimed that the 550-megawatt, natural-gas-burning plant, which will create hundreds of tons of pollutants each year, will actually clean South Gate’s air.

Meanwhile, Sunlaw has offered neighboring cities exactly squat.

That imbalance has infuriated the residents of Downey, a city whose western border is just a few blocks from the proposed plant. “This plant is located within a line on the map which says it’s in South Gate,” says Kevin Thomas, an environmental consultant hired by the city of Downey to review the Nueva Azalea proposal. “But the reality is it’s going to impact Downey just as much.”

Thomas, who works for Irvine-based RBF Consulting, has found many reasons for concern: the potential for hazardous explosions; the effects of pollution on the community, including the Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center; and the looming presence of the eight-story plant, which would be the tallest building in the area, with steam plumes visible throughout Downey. “This project has the potential to negatively affect the lives of all of Downey’s residents,” Thomas says. “The city is very, very concerned.”

Sunlaw’s claim that the plant will clean the air hinges on the company’s plan to use a new technology it has developed called SCONOx, which has been shown to significantly reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, one of the main ingredients of smog. But the residents of Downey are upset that if the plant is built, the SCONOx equipment may not be in place for up to four months after the plant begins operating. During that time, Sunlaw estimates, the plant could release more than 180 tons of nitrogen oxide into the air.

Downey residents are also concerned about the amount of PM10 — also known as particulate matter or soot — that would be spilling out of the plant’s smokestacks even after the SCONOx equipment is in place. PM10 has been linked in numerous studies to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, with children and the elderly especially vulnerable. The truck depot now on the proposed Nueva Azalea site, just east of the 710 freeway, emits about 3.9 tons of PM10 per year. Sunlaw estimates that Nueva Azalea could put out an average of one-third of a ton of PM10 each day.

Downey also takes issue with the data Sunlaw is using to make its clean-air claim. That claim is based on two main facts: how dirty the air is at the proposed site, and how clean Nueva Azalea’s emissions will be. For both of those facts, Sunlaw relies entirely on its own data — it refuses to use pollution measurements taken by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Sunlaw’s claims are under review by the California Energy Commission.

In South Gate, only one member of the City Council, Xochilt Ruvalcaba, has come out in opposition to the project. Her concerns about the proposal were exacerbated when Sunlaw misled the city of South Gate into believing it would not seek to speed up the yearlong application process, but then tried (unsuccessfully) to get the timeline shortened to 10 months. If approved, Nueva Azalea would be the first new major power plant in the Los Angeles area in more than 13 years.

South Gate Mayor Hector De La Torre, who works for Southern California Edison, has repeatedly said the city cannot affect the decision on whether the plant is built, which is up to the California Energy Commission. It is true that the five-member governor-appointed commission ultimately decides the fate of all major power plants in the state. It is also true that the commission has rejected only one project since it was formed 25 years ago.

However, at least one commission-approved power plant was scuttled in the face of strong community opposition. The San Francisco Energy Company in 1996 was unable to build an approved power plant in the minority-dominated Bayview–Hunters Point area after the city refused to lease the site to the company.

Though the city of Downey does not own the property that Sunlaw hopes to build on, it wants to bring similar pressure to bear. On October 25, the city filed with the Energy Commission as an official intervenor, so that Downey can air its grievances in all phases of the application process, including a trial-like hearing before the commission. A decision is expected next August.

For more information on the plant proposal, see Power Play, or visit the commission’s Web site. The next meeting on Nueva Azalea will be held in the city of South Gate on November 1.

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