By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
"Now, it looks like the coal plant was a red herring," Larson says, suggesting it was proposed only to distract environmentalists, bleed their coffers, and make FPL look oh-so-green when it came time to pitch its natural gas plant. To Larson, FPL is not a benevolent energy provider but a money-grubbing behemoth. She cites the ranking of Lewis Hay III, CEO of FPL's parent company, FPL Group, as the second-highest-paid executive in the state. Hay raked in $10.39 million last year. FPL Group's 2007 profit was $1.3 billion.
In contrast, Larson quit her job as a bookstore manager to concentrate full-time on fighting the West County Energy Center. Heavyweight environmental groups, whether exhausted, broke, or pessimistic about the odds of prevailing, have declined to join the fight this time, leaving the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition to go it alone. Larson has remortgaged her house and taken on thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
"Nobody pays you to be a good guy," she laments. Still, the role brings its small satisfactions: She jokes that when lawyers from FPL see her coming, they tremble and run into the basement.
Resisting the powerful tidal pull of the power plant has required Larson and company to be ever alert. The FPL operators are skilled at the game.
In court documents, FPL states that Larson and friends did not formally get involved in the site certification process until that crucial hearing on September 6, 2006, when attorney Barry Silver showed up and asked to be included as an intervener.
Too late, ruled the administrative judge; Florida statutes required that he give notice 30 days prior. Still, the judge allowed 29 members of the public to air their concerns. FPL introduced testimony from 14 of its experts, plus additional written exhibits and testimony. Studies and modeling, they all said, showed that the plant would have few adverse effects.
A month later, the judge ruled that the public comments were merely "speculation on what might occur" and could not compare with the weight of FPL's evidence. He recommended the plant be approved and passed the matter on to Tallahassee.
Larson says that the very last hearing — in front of the governor and his cabinet, including then-State Attorney General Charlie Crist — was initially scheduled for February. But it was "suspiciously" moved up to the week before Christmas, which was one of Jeb Bush's last days in office. Larson and company scrambled to Tallahassee to plead their case.
Larson told the governor, "Anybody with an ounce of brains — I could talk to a 2-year-old. They'd say, 'This ain't good, guys. This doesn't look good.' " Judging from the transcript, Bush did not seem amused.
At the same hearing, Eric Draper, president of Audubon of Florida, told Bush he had no problem with the plant.
But nobody is above suspicion in a 21st-century environmental battle. Tsolkas dug up one of Audubon's newsletters and found Enrique Tomeau, co-owner of Palm Beach Aggregates, listed as a donor in the $25,000-to-$49,000 range. FPL had given Audubon $10,000 to $24,999.
In the end, the Siting Board gave the go-ahead for the plant. Construction on the West County Energy Center began in February 2007, employing 1,700 workers. When finished, the plant will employ 30 to 50 permanent staff.
Later in 2007, though, FPL unveiled a second application. Saying that it would need more electricity during the summer, the utility proposed adding a third power-generating unit to the West County Energy Center, bringing its total capacity to 3,800 megawatts. This would, of course, use more water (now 21 million gallons per day) and create more emissions.
The application triggered a whole new round of the approval process. It also gave the environmentalists more chances to object.
On February 18, more than 100 activists — most in their 20s, many with dyed hair and thrift-store fashion sensibilities — gathered at the entrance to Palm Beach Aggregates along with Tsolkas, Larson, and Silver. They held signs, chanted, and demanded that the power plant construction be stopped. When police told them to move their protest out of the driveway — where they were effectively blocking dump trucks from entering the mine — to a cordoned-off "Free Speech Zone," many of the protesters declined.
Some of them sat down in a circle and slipped their arms into tube-like devices they'd fashioned earlier from PVC pipe, chicken wire, and tar. Locked together, they now formed an immovable human snowflake.
The Sheriff's Office reacted in full force, bringing riot gear, shields, and a K-9 contingent. It was an intimidating show of force, though officers gently tipped cups of water into the chained protesters' mouths. Other deputies used precision power tools to carefully cut them free from their contraptions and lift them to waiting police cars when they made their bodies go limp.
Few locals actually witnessed the protest, since the Sheriff's Office shut down passing traffic for most of the day. Annoyed truckers who were trying to access the mine were forced to sit in their idling trucks, and Palm Beach Aggregates lost a day's worth of business.
Six months later, four of the 27 arrested — Robert Kent, David Weickert, Brian Sprinkle, and Rebecca Woods — met again, in front of Judge Barry Cohen at the Palm Beach County Courthouse. They faced charges of trespassing, unlawful assembly, and resisting an officer without violence. (Others had separate trials.)