Pat Robertson's Oil Firm Seeks to Build Small Power Plant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Televangelist Pat Robertson is marching into California's energy crisis on what he hopes will be a shortcut path. But given the recent fate of another energy project, the founder of the Christian Coalition may face some earthly obstacles.

A day after another firm's application to build a power plant in the Baldwin Hills was scrapped, Robertson's oil company applied last week to build a similar plant in Santa Fe Springs.

Under the governor's emergency power orders, Robertson's CENCO Inc. wants to construct a small plant on the site of its Powerine refinery, within two blocks of a school in a heavily Latino neighborhood.

CENCO officials said the plant would help spur its plans to get the refinery up and running after a six-year closure because of financial problems.

"We've been seeking to get the refinery running," said Donald Brown, a spokesman for CENCO. "One of the problems we've had is financing due to the uncertain costs of power."

The proposed 40-megawatt to 75-megawatt plant would provide the electricity that the refinery needs and end its dependence on Southern California Edison. The excess power would be sold to the state, Brown said.

The natural gas-powered plant, called a peaker, is meant to provide power during hours of peak demand.

But these peaker plants--and the fast-track process with which they are permitted during the energy crisis--are running into opposition from homeowners and environmentalists, who say the facilities are disproportionately located in minority areas.

Six out of nine peakers approved by the state Energy Commission since June are in predominantly minority areas, according to state officials.

Santa Fe Springs, a blue-collar town of 17,000 in southeast Los Angeles County, is 71% Latino.

A coalition of opponents is scrambling to fight the project before it is approved on the emergency 21-day schedule that allows the plant to avoid the normal environmental review process. The nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment, based in Huntington Park, has already sued the company over plans to revive the 64-year-old refinery.

Now the group is organizing residents to do battle over the power plant, saying it is an issue of environmental justice and that the expedited permitting does not give the public enough time to voice its concerns.

"We think this is an abuse of the emergency orders," said Scott Kuhn, an attorney for the environmental group. "These are plants actually licensed to run full time for three years, not just peaker plants."

On Wednesday, opponents hit the streets around the refinery, trying to get residents to join a rally at 5:30 this evening at Santa Fe Springs City Hall.

While the neighbors were well-versed in the refinery issues, few, if any, knew anything about the proposed power plant.

"This is the first I heard about it," said Teresa Gomez, a mother of seven who lives a block from the towering stacks and tanks at Powerine. "We don't need any more contamination around our children."

Next door, Michele Davis said she felt a not-in-my-backyard philosophy was going to exacerbate the energy crisis.

"If we all don't want it in our city, how are we going to get out of this problem?" said Davis.

The 43-year-old mother of four had different feelings about the refinery. When it was operating five years ago, she said, her daughter and husband suffered from severe rashes on their faces. The plant drew heavy fines from air quality agencies and a litany of complaints from neighbors before it was shut down in 1995.

Randy Ulrey, 21, said he woke up every morning to find black oil spots flecked on the cherry red paint of his car. "I don't know what this electrical plant will do, but I don't want this refinery back," he said.

In putting together major opposition so quickly, the organizers face a more difficult task than those in Baldwin Hills.

The neighborhoods in Baldwin Hills are tightly knit, affluent, and had the galvanizing issue that the plant planned for their area was going to sit in the middle of a giant proposed park. Last week, nearly 1,000 people showed up for a hearing to protest the facility.

Residents in Santa Fe Springs, which sits along the Santa Ana Freeway in southeast Los Angeles County, are primarily low income, without nearly the same roots in the community. As Jesus Torres, the organizer, went door to door, it was clear many did not know about the issue or had only mild interest in it.

"They can do whatever they want, it doesn't bother me a bit," said one 77-year-old mobile home park resident who lives next to the plant and didn't want to give his name.

CENCO officials said the environmental group is just trying to raise money and get publicity for itself.

They said the power plant will be clean, and Robertson has said the refinery will be "the most environmentally friendly refinery in the entire United States."

In January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department reached an agreement with CENCO for installation of air pollution controls reducing emissions up to 85%, according to the EPA.

Opposition attorneys say that technology is not enough, and could take up to eight years to install.

Robertson's family trust purchased the Powerine refinery in 1998 using money from the sale of some of the Robertson family broadcasting interests.

The company says it will push forward with the power plant even if it can't get a permit under the emergency orders. The Energy Commission is reviewing the CENCO application, which was filed Friday.

Brown, the CENCO spokesman, said the parallels to Baldwin Hills are few. "There's nothing to compare it to. We're not putting it in the middle of a park."

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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