On December 4, 2008, a jury in West Palm Beach, Florida found seven environmental activists guilty of trespass, unlawful assembly, and resisting arrest. The four-day trial was the third in a series of trials stemming from a February 2008 action. The activists, many identifying themselves with the international radical environmental movement Earth First! and with the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition (PBCEC), were on trial for blocking the entrance to the construction site of the West County Energy Center (WCEC), a natural gas power plant being built in western Palm Beach County by Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). The plant construction has stirred up considerable opposition for its predicted environmental impact.
The activists’ attorneys had used the rarely employed "necessity defense," arguing that committing the crimes was necessary to prevent imminent danger or death, and had asked the jury to acquit. Similar defenses had been used in other civil disobedience actions, such as in Ireland in July 2006, where five activists on trial for causing $2.5 million in damages to a U.S. Air Force transport plane stationed at Shannon Airport (in early 2003), were acquitted by a jury on the basis that their crimes were meant to stop the destruction of life in Iraq.
Florida direct action—photo from RTNA
The Florida civil disobedience took place on the morning of February 18, 2008, when 27 activists blocked the entrance to the power plant construction site. Some locked arms with PVC pipes and lay on the ground while others just linked arms and sat down. By 8:00 AM trucks and other vehicles were prevented from leaving or entering the construction site, effectively shutting down construction for the next six hours. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Field Force deputies had to remove each activist individually, sawing through the pipes or applying pressure points to make the activists let go of each other, thus prolonging the shutdown.
Hundreds of other protesters supported the action from a nearby "free speech zone" that police had cordoned off, holding banners that read "Revoke the West County Energy Center," and "No River of Gas" (a play on "river of grass," as the nearby everglades are known).
The West County Energy Center
The 3,800 megawatt natural gas power plant, under construction since July 2007, has come under fire from both the communities of nearby Wellington and Loxahatchee Groves and from environmental activists. It would be the largest fossil fuel power plant in the country—the current largest is the natural gas/oil Martin County Power Plant also owned by FPL. WCEC is being built within the Everglades bioregion and the Everglades Agricultural Area, just 1,000 feet north of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, putting ecologically sensitive areas at risk.
The plant, once finished, would annually emit 12 million tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is one of the main causes of global warming, plus 13 pounds of mercury emissions, a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage and affect fertility in women and wildlife, plus 4,800 tons of harmful emissions of other chemicals. Many of these emissions can be transported by wind currents and cause health problems in populations far from their original source.
WCEC’s water usage and treatment have also been of major concern. The plant would consume 6.5 billion gallons of water a year, equal to the use of 50,000 homes. This water would be drawn from surface and aquifer sources, mainly the Floridan aquifer (located under all of Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina), which would cause a whole other set of ecological problems.
According to hydroecologist Dr. Sydney Bacchus, who testified at the trial, as the marshes near the power plant are drained for the WCEC’s use, subsidence, or the downward shift of a natural surface, occurs, rotting exposed cypress roots and toppling trees, affecting multi-billion dollar plans for restoring the natural water flow of the Everglades.
Also troubling is what the plant would do with the water left over after it is used to cool the plant. FPL’s permits allow it to inject 21 million gallons of wastewater daily into the aquifers. The chart in FPL’s initial permit applications did not include any potable water wells within a five-mile radius of the power plant, when, in fact, there are wells in nearby Loxahatchee, Fox Trails, and Deer Run, raising concerns about the possible contamination of these communities’ water supplies.
The air and water pollutants will take their toll on nearby wildlife as well. Wildlife biologists James Schuette and Timothy W. Regan of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have said that construction will affect endangered gopher tortoises, wading birds, and bald eagles in the nearby refuge—and that acid rain will harm the fish.
FPL first publicly announced the power plant and its permitting process (rushed and rubber-stamped at that) in the sports pages of the Palm Beach Post in July 2005 when the housing bubble was peaking and Palm Beach County was seeing high growth. Now, with South Florida one of the regions most heavily impacted by the housing and mortgage crisis, foreclosure rates are skyrocketing and people are moving out. Not only are there very few to no new residential development projects, but previously approved developments are being canceled.
According to FPL’s website, each of the WCEC’s three units would produce enough electricity for 250,000 homes and businesses. Even if the region’s rate of growth necessitated the power plant, for this type of growth to occur, the county’s western agricultural areas, which are not zoned for residential development, would have to be developed, thereby violating the county’s Comprehensive Plan for growth management and exacerbating the county’s problems with suburban sprawl. Whether this type of growth occurs or not, there will certainly be higher energy bills for customers to offset FPL’s costs.
The West County Energy Center is just one of many natural gas power plants under construction in the United States. Natural gas, while cleaner than coal or oil power plants, is still a fossil fuel resulting from the anaerobic decay of organic matter, meaning that natural gas is not a renewable alternative to these, or a clean one, as natural gas power plants release air and water pollutants. In addition, the increasing scale to which gas is used means that its carbon emissions often parallel those of coal or oil. In September 2006, FPL announced its intention to build the Glades Power Park, a coal power plant ("clean coal") in nearby Glades County. This proposal was ultimately rejected by the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC) by four to zero in June 2007. Had it passed it would have emitted 13 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, not much higher than the WCEC’s 12 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Another worry surrounding natural gas is its transportation and storage. Natural gas is transported mainly through pipelines in liquefied form and would be transported to the West County Energy Center through Gulfstream Natural Gas System’s (GNGS) pipeline, running from Mississippi and Alabama through the Gulf of Mexico to Florida. In April 2008, GNGS started construction on 34 miles of pipeline that would connect the WCEC to the existing pipeline. Everglades EarthFirst! briefly stopped construction through a permit challenge, as the pipeline would run adjacent to the Dupuis and JW Corbett Wildlife Management Areas, cut through the habitat of endangered gopher tortoises and federally protected indigo snakes, and potentially cause sediment runoff into canals and drainage ways of regional waters. Nevertheless, Phase III of the pipeline began operating in September 2008.
As power plants require different amounts of natural gas depending on demand, natural gas storage is necessary to ensure supply reliability. Floridian Natural Gas Storage received approval from the Martin County Commission in May 2008 and from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September 2008 to build a natural gas storage, liquefaction, and vaporization facility, which would be capable of storing 8 billion cubic feet, or 104 million gallons, of natural gas near Indiantown, Martin County, north of Palm Beach County, for WCEC. While liquefied natural gas (LNG) is not flammable, leaks can cause it to vaporize and mix with air, risking ignition and thus fire and thermal radiation hazards.
"Free Speech Zone"—photo from RTNA
WCEC is not the only FPL natural gas project to come under fire for environmental concerns. Like much of the utilities and energy establishment, FPL has engaged in a "greenwashing" campaign to make it seem as though they are committed to renewable energy when in fact little investment goes to wind, solar, biofuels, or geothermal energy. FPL currently operates no renewable power plants in Florida. This may explain why Florida Power & Light Energy (FPL Group’s renewable energy subsidiary) recently announced it was changing its name to NextEra Energy Resources, as it conducts no business in the state. In December, FPL announced it was beginning work on its 75 megawatt Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Martin County. Despite its name, it would be a combined solar/natural gas power plant. Meanwhile, it has also announced plans to expand its natural gas/oil power plants in Riviera Beach, Florida (a predominantly African American city) and Cape Canaveral (the Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center and the Cape Canaveral Next Generation Clean Energy Center, respectively, both built before the Clear Air Act of 1970). FPL also plans to increase its generating capacity at its Saint Lucie and Turkey Point nuclear power plants.
The Necessity of Ecotage
Activists argued in court in early December, as part of their "necessity defense," that they were driven to commit the crimes to protect human life, as other legal tactics had failed and they had received little to no support from other environmental groups or from politicians and state agencies. Panagioti Tsolkas, one of those convicted, answered a public defender’s question as to why he didn’t just hold a sign: "I came to stop a power plant, not stand in a free speech zone."
Despite the WCEC’s expected environmental impact, very few state and national environmental groups opposed it. Many organizations had joined Everglades EarthFirst! and the PBCEC in fighting the Glades Power Park in 2006 and 2007, but opted for natural gas as the lesser of two evils. Among the groups silent about or supportive of the West County Energy Center are Sierra Club Florida, Audubon of Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Environment Florida, many of which receive substantial donations from FPL itself.
Activists have also combined their direct action tactics with more traditional, legal tactics against the WCEC. In September, Barry Silver, co-chair, along with Tsolkas, of the PBCEC, and its attorney, filed a federal lawsuit, an emergency request to temporarily stop construction of the power plant. The lawsuit alleged that the plant’s construction was in violation of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and other laws including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—the land on which the plant is being built was part of a corrupt zoning deal that landed former Palm Beach County Commissioners Tony Masilotti and Warren Newell five-year prison terms. Despite substantial evidence supporting the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks denied the request in October.
Two trials of other activists involved in the same action had taken place in June and August. In both cases the activists were found guilty, although in the August trial they were found guilty of only two of the charges. They and the others have vowed to appeal their convictions. Meanwhile, the power plant is still under construction, with the first two 1,250 megawatt units to be operational in 2009 and the third in 2011.
In her closing remarks, Assistant State Attorney Danielle Croke told jurors that the "necessity defense" applies only when there is imminent danger to human life, "not trees, not bodies of water, not the environment." It has become increasingly clear that the West County Energy Center poses a threat to all of these.
Gonzalo Vizcardo is an undergraduate student at the University of Miami and is originally from Venezuela.