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Power brokers are at center of push for Vernon electric plant

Former elected officials lobby on behalf of the facility, which is before the AQMD today. Clean- air activists are opposed.

July 13, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Environmental activist Angelo Logan once viewed former state Sen. Martha Escutia as a champion on health issues, someone who sought to reduce the amount of air pollution produced by the trains that roll past the low-income communities southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

But these days, Logan and Escutia are on opposite sides of a clean-air fight, taking part in a furious last-minute lobbying blitz over a $450-million power plant proposed by the tiny industrial city of Vernon.

Escutia, a Los Angeles attorney, and two other former elected officials who have represented communities near Vernon -- former Assemblyman Tom Calderon of Montebello and former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre -- have been at the center of the power plant campaign, lobbying elected officials in favor of rules that would spur construction of the 914-megawatt facility.

That political firepower indicates just how high the stakes are, not just for Vernon but also for a handful of other power plants in the planning stages across the region. That clout has discouraged the environmental groups who are waging their own fight against the plant.

If they "pick up a phone and they make a call, they can get a lunch with just about anyone. That power doesn't fade away," said Logan, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is scheduled to decide today how much Vernon would have to pay to open its proposed 13.7-acre plant, which could begin operating at the corner of Boyle and Fruitland avenues by the summer of 2009.

Although the Vernon plant still faces an extensive review by the California Energy Commission, the AQMD vote is considered pivotal because it would create a new, highly technical set of rules governing the construction of new power generating facilities. The AQMD board is weighing whether to charge more to power plants that seek to operate in low-income neighborhoods already beset by environmental problems.

One proposal before the agency would require Vernon to pay nearly $50 million in "mitigation fees," including roughly $50,000 for each pound of PM10 -- tiny particulate matter viewed as a cause of premature deaths -- that would be generated by the plant on a daily basis.

An alternative proposal would push the cost as high as $89.2 million. And a third would require power plants to have cleaner technology when they are built in "environmental justice zones" -- including Vernon.

Clean-air advocates contend that the AQMD proposal would open a Pandora's box, setting the stage for as many as eight other new power plants across the region, including facilities being discussed in El Segundo, Carson and Riverside.

"The district's decision will allow more than 35 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to be emitted each year," said Tim Grabiel, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has already sued once over the power plant rules.

Vernon's representatives say that the creation of a cleaner-burning plant will lead to the removal of another dirtier plant elsewhere in the region. They also warn that critics of the power plant are jeopardizing the opportunity for cities in southeast Los Angeles County to secure new clean-air projects.

"The opponents are saying no to $50 million in mitigation fees," said Hilda Delgado, a consultant for the city.

Vernon's small army of lobbyists, lawyers and consultants also has been submitting stacks of letters and petitions from residents and companies who favor the project. But some of the elected officials remain unconvinced.

"I can understand that they hire big guns and hire lobbyists, but I don't think anybody in the community knows this is going on," Supervisor Gloria Molina said. Molina and an array of environmental groups say the communities that surround Vernon already cope with a disproportionate share of pollution, from the nearby rail yards to the diesel trucks that travel each day on the 710 Freeway.

Backers of the Vernon plant counter that the project would be cleaner than the vast majority of existing power generating facilities. And they argue that the facility would help the region prevent the rolling brownouts and blackouts that have plagued Southern California over the last decade.

"If we don't build this plant, I believe there are going to be times when we have to go into emergency mode," said Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, an AQMD board member who supports new regulations that would allow more power plants to be built.

Pulido said he has discussed the project with Escutia, Alatorre and yet another onetime politician, former Assemblyman Mike Roos. "They are putting a lot of pressure on the other cities," said Maywood Councilman Felipe Aguirre, an opponent of the Vernon plant who has heard from Escutia and Calderon. "They're calling and asking, 'What do you need from the city of Vernon? What can Vernon do to make this more palatable to you?' "

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