Lights Out

A week before South Gate voters cast ballots on whether to build a massive power plant in their town, many of them received a large envelope in the mail. Contained in each packet were a pair of videos -- one in English, one in Spanish -- extolling the virtues of the proposed 550-megawatt plant, called Nueva Azalea. Also in each packet was a candle. If you vote against the plant, warned an accompanying note, this is all you’ll have to light your way.

These packets were part of the final push by Sunlaw Energy Partners to muster support for a project that had polarized the City Council, energized hundreds of the city‘s Latino working-class and low-income residents, and cost the Vernon-based company hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the end, though, Sunlaw failed to make its case, and on March 6 the voters rejected Nueva Azalea 2-to-1.

”I was so happy I wanted to jump for joy, but I couldn’t,“ said South Gate Councilwoman Xochilt Ruvalcaba, an outspoken opponent of the project who was weakened by a hunger strike she undertook before the election. ”This vote sends a clear message that South Gate has had enough.“

The vote was merely advisory -- decisions about whether power plants get built lie solely with the Sacramento-based California Energy Commission. But the Nueva Azalea proposal had raised serious questions about the efficacy of building a new power plant in a densely populated, heavily industrialized part of Los Angeles that already suffers from some of the worst pollution in the country.

Sunlaw had maintained from the beginning of a nearly two-year campaign that it would not build the $256-million plant without community support, and the company opened its checkbook to make its case. It sponsored a Cinco de Mayo festival, offered free food and drink at its meetings, and dispatched dozens of canvassers to the homes of likely voters, who were also blanketed with pro--Nueva Azalea mailings. The company ran full-color ads in the local newspaper, and on Telemundo and Univision, the two Spanish-language television stations. Between January 1 and election day alone, Sunlaw spent more than $300,000 on behalf of the power plant, election records show. Opponents, led by the nonprofit environmental-justice group Communities for a Better Environment, spent about $5,000.

Two days after the electoral defeat, Sunlaw withdrew its application. ”We made a commitment not to move forward with the plant in South Gate without the support of the people,“ said Robert Alaniz, a Sunlaw spokesman from the public-relations firm Hill and Knowlton. ”We honored that commitment.“

Sunlaw had hoped to build Nueva Azalea, which would have been the size of Dodger Stadium, at the eastern edge of South Gate on the site of a diesel-truck depot next to the 710 freeway. The natural-gas-burning plant would have released more than 150 tons of pollution per year, a substantial amount, though less than other fossil-fuel-burning plants. Sunlaw claimed that the plant, through use of a special filter designed to reduce emissions, would actually clean the air. But for many residents, that claim only highlighted how dirty their air already is, and Nueva Azalea became a lightning rod for those concerns.

At meetings and rallies held over the last few months, parents worried over the health of children at a school near the proposed site, and elderly residents of a trailer park a few hundred yards away fretted about increased noise and dust. The neighboring cities of Downey, Huntington Park and Paramount voiced their opposition to the project, as did U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters. The Nueva Azalea proposal also deepened a long-standing rift on the South Gate City Council, sparking shouting matches during public meetings and contributing to the recall in November of one council member suspected of supporting the project.

As for Sunlaw, the company has no intention of abandoning its plans for a new power plant. Much is at stake for the company, which is counting on the new plant to be a showcase for its patented lower-polluting technology. ”We have made a definitive decision to move forward,“ said Alaniz, who declined to reveal a specific location, but said the company is discussing potential sites with communities in both Northern and Southern California.

In light of the continuing energy crisis, Sunlaw is not likely to have much difficulty finding a new location. But those in Sacramento who have cast the residents of South Gate as Not-In-My-Back-Yard spoilsports have sorely missed the point, said Alvaro Huerta of Communities for a Better Environment. ”This was a question of pollution on top of pollution,“ he said. ”Most of the people who opposed this project don‘t even have back yards.“

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