(Ed’s Note: This story originally appeared at CaliforniaCityNews.org, a content partner of Capitol Weekly)
Nestled deep in the smoggy Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles are two peaceful California towns — Lancaster and Palmdale. But between those two quiet communities, a raucous fight is raging about a power plant on their border.
Palmdale wants to build it. Lancaster wants to stop it.
Lancaster officials say the Antelope Valley’s gusting winds will carry the plant’s 546 tons of pollution — and the problems that will come with it – straight to Lancaster.
Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford says Lancaster’s claims are unsubstantiated. He notes that the project was moving forward and received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Energy Commission contingent on the provision of Emission Reduction Credits as part of the program to fight greenhouse gases.
So why would Lancaster officials suddenly start to fight the project?
“It’s what they do,” Ledford says. “Maybe [Lancaster Vice Mayor Marvin Crist] put it on his bucket list as something he’d like to do. ‘I think I’d like to kill a power plant.’ It’s just immature.”
Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Crist, who also serves as chair of the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District, sees it as a matter of life and death for his citizens. He believes they will bear the brunt of the impact of pollution in a zone already known for its smoggy air.
And Lancaster is accustomed to breathing others’ pollution: The Antelope Valley does not create a large amount of industrial pollutants itself, but its proximity to Los Angeles has exposed it to levels of smog that have made the area among the most heavily polluted zones in the country.
“We’re ranked last in respiratory diseases, asthma, the whole gamut of respiratory diseases,” Crist said. “When all of our kids have asthma and you add to that, it’s kind of like putting too much chlorine in a pool. Chlorine’s good in a pool, but too much chlorine’s bad.”
Crist said that in order for the Palmdale plant to move forward, the project’s proponents must mitigate at a 1.3-to-1 ratio in order to gain their emission reduction credits. Crist added that the plant permit is further demonstration of just how dirty the project is.
Meanwhile, Mayor Ledford argued that 1.3 to 1 ratio is a point of pride on the project, and he added that the EPA described it as one of the cleanest power plants in the state. The 570 megawatt plant will operate on about 90 percent natural gas and 10 percent solar power, Ledford said.
Crist and Lancaster officials, however, believe that the EPA and CEQA assessments neglected the prevailing winds that ensure Lancaster will receive most of the pollution coming from the plant on their borders.
“I can understand their concerns,” said Bret Banks, operations manager at the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District. “Here’s the difficulty that our agency runs into, there are limits and thresholds that are put out in state and federal law, and if an applicant meets those thresholds then our agency is required to issue a permit.”
In any case, the emission reduction credits are the final hurdle that Lancaster officials hope Palmdale officials will fail to clear on the path to beginning the plant’s construction.
The recent $28 million sale of the site to a private entity, the Summit Power Group, and the plant’s progress towards obtaining those emission reduction credits have created a sense of urgency among those in Lancaster who seek to halt the project. The dispute between the two cities has devolved into a high-stakes ‘he said, she said’ debate over exactly who the plant will hurt and who it will help.
For example, Crist argues that the sale to Summit Power Group in itself is a violation of the promise Palmdale made to the community that it would own and operate the plant to the end of reducing energy costs throughout the Antelope Valley
“When you present something that is a monstrosity like this to the community you have to give it some benefits,” Crist said of Palmdale’s argument that the plant will reduce energy costs throughout the Antelope Valley.
The City of Palmdale’s official website presented the power plant in these words: “The City of Palmdale proposes to construct, own, and operate the Palmdale Hybrid Power Plant (PHPP), an innovative 570 megawatt (MW) electric generating facility,” lending credence to Crist’s assertion that they flipped on the promise to own and operate the plant themselves.
But Ledford said that was not a promise but just one of three options, one that became less realistic when the billion-dollar project was viewed in light of the financial crisis that began in 2008.
Crist additionally took issue with the amount of land that Summit purchased for the project, saying the 50 acres sold is not enough to include both the solar and gas components of the plant.
“Summit is interested in only 50 acres because Summit owns a portfolio of only wind and solar,” Ledford countered. “This project will be a stabilizing factor for their alternative energy production.”
Palmdale also defended its choice to locate the power plant so close to the border of Lancaster, despite Crist’s protests that having sold just 50 acres to Summit gives them more flexibility with regards to the location.
The defense was detailed in one of a series of “Fact vs. Fiction” reports released by the City of Palmdale attacking Crist’s assertions regarding the plant’s potential dangers. The report quoted the California Energy Commission’s approval of the project saying that alternative sites considered would not be feasible.
Regardless of the EPA and CEC approvals, however, construction cannot proceed until the emission reduction credits have been approved. Throughout that process, accusations between the two cities will continue to pollute the debate until the discussion is so clouded with facts, figures, and fighting that the truth may be as unclear as the air.
“No one’s going to dispute that there’s emissions from a power plant,” said John Mlynar, the City of Palmdale’s communications manager. “There’s emissions from their go-cart race [Lancaster’s] going to have next week.”