By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Getting a power plant approved is no simple task. Local governments must approve the proposed site for such use. The Florida Public Service Commission must rule that a new plant is needed. The utility must also comply with all federal regulations. And it must go through a complicated state site-certification process.
For that last piece, ten public agencies are invited to submit concerns about the proposed plant. The state Department of Environmental Protection collects and analyzes that input and writes its own report. A judge from the state Division of Administrative Hearings presides over a series of hearings. After all that, the Power Plant Siting Board, AKA the governor and his Cabinet, give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
On top of that, the pipeline and the deep-well injection require separate permitting processes. That, environmentalists say, is part of the problem.
FPL had asked the Palm Beach County Commission to zone the parcel of land inside the Palm Beach Aggregates for power plant usage as early as 2002; in 2004, it did. Only later was it determined that Commissioner Tony Masilotti, who voted in favor, stood to profit from a secret deal with Palm Beach Aggregates. He is now in prison.
The rest of the steps, however, went smoothly: The Public Service Commission agreed that the plant was needed, and the state agencies that had been asked for input either had minor concerns or chose not to comment at all.
The only major objections were raised by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, which cited troubling amounts of air emissions — such as the anticipated annual 3,030 tons of carbon monoxide and 264 tons of "volatile organic compounds." The council raised concerns that the facility would "remove a significant amount of water from the current system of water resources" and then inject its industrial wastewater into the ground. Yet the agency refrained from saying the plant should be denied.
The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed that air pollutants would "exceed 100 tons per year" but wrote that FPL had appropriate "control technology" to prevent harm to humans or the environment. DEP recommended that the plant be approved.
In the middle of this process, Alex Larson picked up her newspaper and saw the ad about one of the administrative hearings. Public records show that she, along with friend Sharon Waite, attended the hearing and spoke out about their concerns as though they were modern-day Erin Brockoviches. Wouldn't the plant spew tons of emissions? they demanded. Why build it next to the wildlife refuge — home to 63 protected species of plants and animals? The natural gas pipeline ran next to Aggregates property, where blasting happened regularly — what if the pipeline exploded?
The administrative judge later ruled that the women's concerns did not count as sufficient evidence to stop the land from being zoned for a power plant. The process moved along.
FPL also embarked upon a voluntary program of public outreach that included creating a brochure and giving "over ten community presentations." FPL advertised that the public was welcome to view the full, detailed application for the power plant at three local libraries.
Larson says she went looking for it. She wanted to study it. The final administrative hearing for the plant was to be September 6, 2006. It would be her last chance to speak out before the application went to the governor.
"All the documentation was supposed to be available at every library!" Larson cries now. She says she couldn't get a complete copy until the day of the hearing. "They handed me a red book, two inches thick. We even told the judge, 'This was supposed to be available in July, and this is September!' How would anyone make an informed decision — or even a comment — if you are only handed documentation on the day of the hearing? It's all very cloak and dagger! That right there should have stopped the administrative judge [from approving the plant's application and sending it to the next step of the permitting process]."
By then, Larson had enlisted some like-minded friends, many of whom were loosely organized as a group called the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition. Notably, the group included progressive lawyer Barry Silver and bearded young community activist Panagioti Tsolkas, as mischievous as he is dedicated, known around town for organizing protests and staging acts of civil disobedience.
In 2005, local and regional environmentalists had stopped the Mecca Farms agricultural site from being developed into the Scripps Biotech Center. Because about $110 million in taxpayer money had been spent preparing the Mecca site, construction began hurriedly; workers tore down trees and began laying foundations for buildings. The Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club sued. Federal Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled for the protesters, agreeing that a detailed environmental impact statement was required. His ruling effectively halted construction. Today, the abandoned Mecca farms site is like Palm Beach County's very own Road to Nowhere. Larson and company envision the power plant meeting a similar fate.
Shortly after the Scripps battle, environmental groups battled Florida Power & Light's proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in Glades County. Eventually, the Public Service Commission nixed the plant on the grounds that it wasn't cost-effective.