Energy Company Abandons Plans for Baldwin Hills Plant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a victory for environmentalists and nearby homeowners, an energy company announced Thursday that it was abandoning its plan to build a power plant on the site of a proposed state park in the Baldwin Hills.

La Jolla Energy Development Inc., in a letter to the state Energy Commission, said it was withdrawing its application for fast-track approval of the 53-megawatt plant and "will not pursue the Baldwin facility in the future."

"We listened to the community," La Jolla President Steve Wilburn said in an interview Thursday. "We need to find another place for this equipment."

The project was to be a joint venture between La Jolla and Stocker Resources, an oil company that leases the land where the trailer-sized natural-gas plant would sit.

Stocker officials said they will decide in the next few days whether they will pursue the project. "At this point it's just La Jolla pulling out," Stocker spokesman Steve Rusch said.

But most observers said it would be difficult to move forward on the fast-track schedule the state has implemented to relieve the energy crisis.

The state commission was scheduled to decide whether to approve the project today in Sacramento, but the hearing has been canceled.

The news sparked elation among environmentalists and nearby homeowners who had fought the proposal on grounds that it would pollute neighborhoods and threaten an ambitious plan to piece together 1,200 acres of public open space in the hills.

"We're getting ready to have the biggest party," said Tony Nicholas, president of the hills' United Homeowners Assn. "This shows how a community can come together for a common goal and mobilize the people in a matter of days."

About 76% of the residents in the hills are African American and many saw the issue as a matter of environmental justice.

In addition, Stocker and La Jolla were seeking approval for the plant within 21 days of filing their application, under the governor's emergency power orders. By following this fast-tracked procedure, they would have been able to avoid the normal, time-consuming environmental review process.

That angered opponents even further, and nearly 1,000 people showed up at a public hearing Monday to fight the project.

But what officials said turned the tide against the project--at a time when the energy commission is approving such plants as fast as possible--was testimony from a South Coast Air Quality Management official who said his agency would not be able to approve the plant quickly.

Executive Director Barry Wallerstein said his agency would have to conduct hearings that would take up to 60 days, pushing construction well beyond a Sept. 30 deadline set by the governor for fast-track projects. He also said it was unlikely Stocker could get needed exemptions from federal clean air laws.

In a letter to the Energy Commission this week, Wallerstein wrote: "It appears that the Baldwin Energy Facility could not begin operation until some time in the first part of 2002 at the earliest." By Wednesday night, the energy commissioner who presided over the public hearings issued a statement recommending that the rest of the commission deny the application for a plant, citing Wallerstein's concerns.

Conservationists embraced the outcome as a sign that the movement to create a park was gaining steam. The Baldwin Hills Conservancy was created last year with the idea of creating green space for the densely populated neighborhoods of south Los Angeles. With support from the governor and local politicians, the state recently bought a 68-acre parcel in the area for an unprecedented $41 million.

"This is a great day for the Baldwin Hills and all the people who have worked so hard to bring this world-class vision to reality," said Esther Feldman, president of Community Conservancy International and the main organizer to build the park.

Also applauding La Jolla's decision were state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) and Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who had come out strongly against the project. They and others questioned whether the small amount of power provided by the facility--coming online after the dog days of summer--would do much to relieve the energy crisis.

"I'm ecstatic" Wesson said. "At this point the environment has won."

The plant would have sat on what is a working oil field about 650 feet from the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. And according to park proponents, it would lie in the middle of the grander state conservancy, on what would be a half-mile bridge of land arching over La Cienega Boulevard.

Rusch, the spokesman for Stocker, said much of the information circulating about the trailer-sized plant is false.

The plan did not call for "a stack with billowing smoke," he said. "If the issue is air quality, we've cleaned air quality up." In the last decade, Rusch said, the company's existing 400 oil pumps on the property have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions from 374 tons to 3 tons a year. The power plant--with two 70-foot stacks--would ultimately add about 18 tons a year.

He said the company was trying to cut its energy bills by providing its own power to pump oil, while also contributing an extra 39 megawatts to the state grid during the energy crisis.

Residents say there are more desolate places for the state to relieve the energy problem. Said Mary Ann Green, president of the Blair Hills Homeowners Assn.: "We just hope that Stocker would be responsive to the outcry from the community."

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