“David v. Goliath” in SE Los Angeles

Alvaro Huerta

Recently, in a
highly publicized political battle, residents of Southeast Los Angeles
(SELA)—a predominately working class, Latino region—defeated the building of a
massive power plant. SELA is considered one of the most polluted areas in the
country. It is not only contaminated with hundreds of polluting facilities and
four major freeways, but also overburdened with heavy diesel truck, train, and
air traffic.

Many community
residents saw Sunlaw Energy Partners’ proposal to build a 550 megawatt power
plant in South Gate, (one of seven cities in SELA), as a demonstration of
environmental racism. If built, this plant would have emitted over 150 tons of
pollution per year, including particulate matter (PM10). PM10 (fine particles
of soot) has been linked to premature death, including heart failure and
respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis. The plant (the size of
Dodger Stadium) would have impacted hundreds of thousands of residents,
including over 100 schools, 13 hospitals, numerous convalescent homes, day
care centers, and parks.

Communities for
a Better Environment (CBE), along with local community members, launched a
successful, grassroots organizing campaign to protect the health of the
impacted residents. When CBE started its educational outreach efforts, people
repeatedly said that it was impossible to win against a multi-million dollar
corporation that was determined to build a power plant during California’s
“energy crisis.”

Not only did
Sunlaw spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get community support by
sponsoring local parades, festivals, and picnics, sending glossy mailers to
residents, purchasing newspaper and television ads, they also enlisted a
powerful group of political forces. This list includes State Senator Martha
Escutia (whose husband, Leo Briones, was hired by Sunlaw to do public
relations), Assembly Member Marco Antonio Firebaugh (who accepted $25,000 from
Sunlaw on behalf of the California Friends Latino PAC), several local city
council members and businesses, LA County Federation of Labor leader Miguel
Contreras and affiliated unions (Sunlaw agreed to hire union labor for the
construction of the plant), and a few mainstream environmental groups.

In addition to
these powerful forces, the political climate favored Sunlaw, not to mention
the governor’s unconditional call for building more power plants, regardless
of the potentially significant environmental and health concerns to impacted
residents. Prior to taking a formal position regarding the power plant, South
Gate Council Members placed the siting issue on an advisory ballot measure in
the March 6, 2001 elections. Although the vote was non-binding, Sunlaw
officials promised to abandon their $256 million power plant project if they
lost. Several months before election day, CBE and local volunteers organized
community education meetings, demonstrated and marched to South Gate City
Hall, held festivals against the power plant, mobilized residents to put up
posters, went door-to-door, made one-on-one and group presentations, conducted
phone banking, voiced opposition at public hearings, and made public appeals
to surrounding cities to pass resolutions against the power plant.

Determined to
win the vote, Sunlaw spent over $360,000 from January 1, 2001 until election
day. In sharp contrast, opponents of the power plant spent less than $5,000
during the same period, according to the latest city records.

The grass-roots
organizing efforts against the power plant culminated in an election victory
by a two to one margin. Shortly thereafter, Sunlaw heeded the will of the
people by abandoning their Nueva Azalea Power Plant Project in South Gate.
“Nueva Azalea from the beginning thought they had made a wise and
cost-effective decision to attract the people of South Gate, but little did
they know we as a community would come together with surrounding cities and
make them think twice about going through with these plans,” wrote Bernette
Serrano in the South Gate High School paper, the Rambler.

The driving
forces behind this historic victory were the dedicated volunteers and members
of several community-based organizations: Communities for a Better Environment
and its youth project—Youth EJ, the No on Measure A Committee, Youth Action
and MEChA of South Gate High School, several elected officials, local city
agencies, and a few social justice organizations. In the end, this was not
only a victory for the people of Southeast Los Angeles, but also a victory for
all who fight for dignity and environmental justice.   Z

Alvaro Huerta an organizer in Los Angeles. He is currenty working for
Communities for a Better Environment.