On Hula Circle in Huntington Beach, families have tried to live with their two very different neighbors. They live steps from the Pacific Ocean but next door to the mechanical shrieks and foul smells of the massive AES Corp. power plant.
But California's power crisis is rapidly unhinging life in the neighborhood of ranch houses and bungalows.
State regulators will decide next week whether to allow the company to double plant operations by July, providing much-needed electricity to the state but taking what residents fear will be a heavy toll on them.
It's one of several proposals to restart or build new power plants in the wake of the power crisis using a "fast-track" process that allows the projects to go forward before environmental and pollution studies are completed.
"The plant is so close. We want to know if it is impacting our kids in ways we won't know about until 10 years from now," said Janette Mortimer, who lives with her husband and their two young children in one of the homes closest to the plant.
Already, residents report, the AES plant is casting a mighty shadow. There are the ear-ringing rumbles and roars so loud it sounds as if low-flying planes are buzzing overhead. There are the mysterious plumes of smoke that waft over the neighborhood, overwhelming residents with the smell of car exhaust. Then there is the grime that
seems never to go away.
If the California Energy Commission approves the permit for AES, the facility could run at full capacity for the first time in memory. Officials at the Air Quality Management District said the plant's previous owner, Southern California Edison, typically ran it at 30% of capacity.
AES could be allowed to run four gas-fired boilers and a "peaker unit" whenever California hits a Stage 3 alert--which is expected often during the coming summer. The peaker unit alone is powered by eight jet engines--and sounds like it. Currently, only two of the boilers are operating.
"We're going to take it on the ear," said resident Topper Horack.
But it's the air they breathe and the water they swim in that worries residents most.
Under the fast-tracking process designed to get more electricity for the state as soon as possible, several key environmental questions will only be addressed after the project goes forward.
For example, scientists studying the cause of ocean pollution that closed much of Huntington Beach's shoreline in the summer of 1999 have identified the plant as a possible source. AES will pay $1.5 million to further study the issue, but the research won't be complete for some time.
"So much is uncertain," said Huntington Beach Councilwoman Shirley S. Dettloff. "These are big, big things."
For now, residents are bracing themselves for more noise, more smoke and more disruption.
To begin with, AES' proposal calls for 20 hours a day of nonstop construction to get the two mothballed generators back in service by July.
Then there are the sizzling summer temperatures. Residents usually open their windows to let the ocean breezes cool their homes. But the noise and smells from the plant are expected to make that impossible.
"It's going to be bad. There's no escape," said Bryan Visnoski, who is so worried about the amount of electricity that will flow from overhead transmission lines that he has already decided to make the backyard pool off limits to his four young sons this summer.
The plant has towered over the Huntington Beach coastline for nearly 40 years, since bean farms still dotted the coastal valley running north along the Santa Ana River. The housing tracts came later, but most inhabitants of Hula Circle and surrounding streets seemed to make peace with their industrial neighbor.
Many have gone to great lengths to lessen the intrusive presence of the plant. Some have installed double-paned windows to dampen the sound. Others have remodeled their homes to obstruct ugly views. The Mortimers, who bought their home in 1993, grew tall trees and vines outside the windows in the kitchen and their bedroom.
The problems, they said, began with the energy crisis.
The plant was owned by Southern California Edison until 1998, when it was sold to AES--California's largest private electricity producer--at the dawn of deregulation.
The two gas-fired boilers that AES wants to restart have been dormant since 1995 and were slated for demolition until the power crisis struck.
But a few months ago, as rolling blackouts hit the state, Gov. Gray Davis signed an executive order urging the restarting of old plants. The order also allowed "peaker plants" to operate for extended hours. Peaker plants can produce electricity in quick bursts but guzzle large amounts of natural gas and are noisy.
The governor's order states that any new peaker plants must be built away from densely populated areas but does not restrict existing plants.
Hula Circle residents said the order has resulted in more hours of loud noise that makes them feel as if they live near an airport.