No new power plant in South Gate. The message, loud and clear, came from Sunlaw Energy Partners on March 8, two days after residents of the largely Latino, heavily polluted city voted against the project by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

A spokesman for Sunlaw reiterated that pledge. “They absolutely are not going to build in South Gate,” said Robert Alaniz of Hill and Knowlton, a public-relations firm. “Sunlaw is going to honor the vote.”

But a letter sent from an attorney for Sunlaw Energy Partners to the California Energy Commission on March 12 raises questions about the status of the proposed plant, called Nueva Azalea. Nowhere in the letter does Barry H. Epstein say he’s withdrawing plans for the Dodger Stadium–size, 550-megawatt natural-gas plant. Instead he requests a six-month suspension “so that the applicant can consider its options for a successful siting of the Nueva Azalea Project.”

Alaniz insists that the request for a suspension is merely a business move, to ensure that Sunlaw has the chance to figure out whether any part of the application is transferable if and when the company finds a new site for the plant. Sunlaw has already visited two potential sites, he said, and will visit at least two more before selecting a site.

Plant opponents, however, are worried that Sunlaw is merely delaying its application until after the summer, which by all predictions will be a period of blackouts for the city of South Gate and other southeast Los Angeles cities served by power-starved Southern California Edison. They also suspect that Sunlaw may be holding on to its Nueva Azalea application to put the company in a better bargaining position with other cities. “We‘re gravely disappointed and extremely concerned,” said Alvaro Huerta of Communities for a Better Environment, a grassroots environmental-justice group that opposes the plant. “This leaves the door open for anything.”

Rob Schlichting, spokesman for the Energy Commission, confirms that a mere suspension of application makes it possible for Sunlaw to resume its efforts to build in South Gate. But it also could save Sunlaw time and money if parts of its application can be used elsewhere. “Keeping this application open could be valuable to them,” Schlichting said. “Whatever they decide to do.”#

LA Weekly