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No Clear Picture of Bias in Power Plant Placement

July 31, 2001|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the power plant developers came calling on Baldwin Hills, residents of that wealthy, predominantly black community took one look at the blueprints for electrical turbines in their backyard and asked: Why Baldwin Hills and not, say, Beverly Hills?

When a power plant was proposed for a largely Latino neighborhood in Chula Vista, not far from the Mexican border in metropolitan San Diego, people there wondered: Why Chula Vista and not La Jolla?

In these and other places in California, the state's headlong rush to build power plants this year has raised a sensitive issue: Is California dumping its power plants on its most vulnerable residents, either brazenly or unintentionally locating plants--and their potentially toxic emissions--in areas that are mostly occupied by the poor and people of color?

The answer, according to a Times' analysis of 42 new and proposed new plants, is no--and yes.

The analysis shows no evidence that the plants are more likely to be located in poor neighborhoods. About half the new and proposed plants are located in areas of above-average income--in some cases, well above average, although it is also true that none is being located in the state's very wealthiest neighborhoods.

The plants are, however, disproportionately likely to be located near predominantly Latino neighborhoods as opposed to areas that are mostly white, black or Asian.

The Latino disparity grows glaring when one looks at proposals for the smaller "peaker" plants that have generated sporadic protests up and down the state. Those plants, meant to run during periods of heaviest demand, are small but also, by some measures, dirtier than new, large "baseload" plants. Latinos are a majority of the people living around proposed peaker plants, whereas whites are sharply underrepresented.

"You have to ask, 'Why are they doing it here?' " said Michael Meacham, a city official in Chula Vista who opposed the construction of a peaker plant there. "Is it because it's a moderate- to low-income area? Is it because it's a predominantly Hispanic area?"

Plant operators defend the choice of sites, saying they choose them based on physical needs--such as natural gas lines and transmission lines--and not on the basis of socioeconomics. They also say that all the sites are on land zoned for industrial use and that power generation is far from the most noxious industrial process.

Environmental justice advocates questioned the siting of plants in poor areas that are already beset by serious pollution problems. Still, Anne Simon, a senior attorney with the Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment, said she was encouraged by The Times' finding that there was no disparity based on income. Perhaps, she said, developers have learned a lesson.

"It's good, I would imagine, that the developers understand that they can't, as a rule, walk into communities of color and plop down any use that they want," she said.

Using 2000 census data and mapping software, The Times examined the racial and ethnic breakdown of people living within a three-mile radius of all the new and proposed plants. The state uses three miles as a standard for considering whether a plant will have a harmful effect on the surrounding population.

The findings:

* Thirty-seven percent of the people living around the new or proposed plants are Latino, compared with 32% of all Californians who are Latino. When only peaker plants are considered, the figure jumps to 53%.

* Forty-two percent of those around the plants are whites, compared with 47% in the general population. Again, the disparity is greater around peakers, where just 32% are white.

* African Americans and Asian Americans are more evenly represented--in fact, remarkably so. In both cases, their populations around the plant sites come within a quarter of a percentage point of mirroring their proportion of the state's overall population. When only peaking plants are considered, both groups are underrepresented.

* According to 1997 income estimates, 21 of the areas surrounding plant sites have median household incomes above the state average, while 20 are below. One site, that of the proposed Pastoria plant in Kern County, has no residents within a three-mile radius; hence, no income.

State officials and representatives of the companies building the plants insist that any racial or ethnic disparity is mere coincidence. Roger Johnson, who is in charge of power plant siting for the California Energy Commission, said it might simply be a quirk of geography that Latinos appear overrepresented. More plants are being built in Southern California than Northern California, he said, and more Latinos live in the south.

Latinos make up 39% of the population in the seven southernmost counties in California, well above their numbers in the rest of the state.

"There was no design to achieve any kind of discrimination, or to result in these projects being located closer to one group as opposed to another," Johnson said.

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