What does a Christmas parade float have to do with California's current energy crisis?
The float, which appeared in last month's South Gate Christmas parade, was paid for by Sunlaw Energy Co., a firm that is trying to win public support to build a new power plant on the industrial outskirts of that blue-collar community.
By the company's own estimates, it has spent $40,000 over the last year on the float, a Cinco de Mayo festival, fliers and newspaper ads and a community picnic. But opposition by community activists and some city officials remains fierce to the proposed 550-megawatt plant, which would be the first power plant built in Los Angeles County in 20 years.
While Gov. Gray Davis has declared the construction of more power plants to ease the energy crisis a top priority, South Gate serves as an example of just how difficult it can be, given concerns about pollution and possible health effects.
Sunlaw is proposing to build the Nueva Azalea power plant on a 13.5-acre site that is now occupied by a diesel truck depot south of Southern Avenue, next to the Long Beach Freeway. The natural gas-powered plant would be nearly the size of Dodger Stadium and would cost $256 million to build.
Sunlaw has promised $1 million in neighborhood improvements near the plant, plus $150,000 a year in community scholarships and as much as $6 million in annual tax revenues if the project is built.
Such revenues are sorely needed in South Gate, a financially beleaguered city that once was home to General Motors and Firestone Rubber and Tire. The plants closed 20 years ago, taking with them thousands of union-wage jobs.
Critics liken the promises of scholarships and hefty tax revenues to bribes. They call the project an example of environmental racism because it is proposed for a heavily Latino, working-class community--a charge that Sunlaw vehemently rejects.
"They will try any angle to trick people into supporting the power plant," said South Gate Mayor Pro Tem Xochilt Ruvalcaba, one of the project's most vocal opponents.
The charges from both sides of the controversy have become increasingly nasty as South Gate voters prepare for a public referendum on the project in March.
The referendum will be nonbinding, but Sunlaw officials promise to abide by the outcome.
"If the city of South Gate doesn't want us there, we will leave," Sunlaw founder Robert Danziger said. "I guarantee it."
The California Energy Commission is scheduled to hold community workshops this month on the proposed plant, including one scheduled for Thursday night. Staff members are expected in March to submit a recommendation on the plant to the commission, which then is scheduled to vote on the permit in August.
Sunlaw is among several power companies statewide that hope to take advantage of soaring electricity demands and the deregulation of the energy market.
To counter charges of environmental racism, Sunlaw touts the endorsement of state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), a champion of the environmental justice movement. But her support is clouded in controversy because Sunlaw hired Escutia's husband as a public relations consultant six months after she gave her endorsement. Escutia and her husband deny that her endorsement was tied to his job.
Sunlaw, a private firm that operates two 28-megawatt power plants in the nearby city of Vernon, makes about $3.7 million a year in sales, according to a business report by Dun & Bradstreet.
Danziger said Sunlaw is proposing a state-of-the-art power plant, so clean that it will force other utilities to meet or surpass those standards.
In fact, Danziger and other Sunlaw officials said, the power plant will actually clean the air--a claim many critics call outrageous.
Danziger said that on particularly smoggy days, the air emitted from the power plant's cooling towers will be cleaner than the surrounding air.
One opponent, South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles, calls such a promise absurd.
"They are not in the business of cleaning the air," he said. "They are in the business of making returns for their shareholders or their owners."
Officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District recently gave the plant preliminary approval, saying it is expected to surpass all air-quality regulations and would help ease the power crisis.
But AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein said he could not endorse or reject the claim that the plant will clean the air.
Even opponents of the project concede that the power plant is expected to generate much less air pollution than the diesel truck depot it would replace.
The plant is expected to use a relatively new pollution-control system called SCONOx, which oxidizes pollutants to a benign form or to a form that can be captured on the surface of the emission stacks.
Still, the California Energy Commission estimates that in each year of operation, the South Gate plant will emit 56 tons of oxides of nitrogen, 17 tons of carbon monoxide, 24 tons of volatile organic compounds and 287 tons of particulate matter into the air.
All four compounds contribute to the formation of smog and have been linked to health problems. For that reason, Communities for a Better Environment, a Huntington Park-based environmental activist group, adamantly opposes the project.
Alvaro Huerta, an organizer with the group, recently led a community meeting at South Gate High School that attracted about 200 people, mostly area students. During the hearing, Huerta warned of the health dangers posed by the plant and urged the community to rally against it.
"If they build the plant, it's because you people did nothing," he told the crowd.
How South Gate residents think about the project may have been demonstrated in November when voters recalled Councilman Bill DeWitt, whom critics accused of supporting the plant. He was replaced by Maria Benavides, who campaigned against it.
Sunlaw officials had hoped that the support of Sen. Escutia would win over other political leaders. But Escutia's involvement generated controversy when Sunlaw hired her husband, Leo Briones.
Briones and Escutia reject suggestions of a quid pro quo.
"I interviewed for the job like everyone else," Briones said. He called opponents of the project irresponsible because, he said, the proposed plant could help ease the current energy crisis.
"If we don't do something about the energy crisis, there are going to be blackouts all over the state," he said.
Both Briones and Escutia say the health risks associated with the plant are negligible. They also say the tax revenues it generated could be used for much-needed capital improvements and social services.
Said Escutia: "Money coming in and clean technology and replacing diesel trucks sounds pretty good to me."