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"David v. Goliath" in SE Los Angeles
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.