By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Allie Conti
By Chris Joseph
By Kyle Swenson
By Ryan Cortes
By Ryan Cortes
By Chris Joseph
Alex Larson has many endearing qualities — but tactfulness isn't one of them.
"Knowing me is bad," the roly-poly, middle-aged environmental activist concedes in a scruffy smoker's voice. "Real painful."
When her friend got pregnant, for instance, Larson pointed out that because of the recent national bank bailout, the child was already "$45,000 in debt, and it hasn't even come out of the birth canal yet!" When former Gov. Jeb Bush came to town to preside over a "golden shovel" groundbreaking ceremony for a biotech center, Larson and a friend rented an airplane and buzzed over his head.
For almost four years now, Larson has dedicated her life to opposing a $2 billion natural-gas-fired power plant now being built within the Everglades Agricultural Area. Once complete, the plant will have a generating capacity of 3,800 megawatts — enough to power about 750,000 homes. Pop into any official meeting where it's being discussed, Larson says, "and you'll see my puss in there saying, 'What are you, nuts?' "
The blond, fair-skinned homemaker would be getting a lot more sleep these days if she hadn't read the newspaper with a real eagle eye in July 2005.
She saw an advertisement in the Palm Beach Post — one of those big public notices with dry technical language about an upcoming hearing. She swears it was buried on the sports or obituary pages. It said that Florida Power & Light was planning to build a power plant, called the West County Energy Center, about a mile from her house. She visualized her darkest nightmare: a massive, emissions-spewing industrial complex plopped down in the sawgrass.
Larson alerted neighbors and fellow activists and set out to stop the plant, which is scheduled to begin operating in 2009. Today, the battle between these grassroots conservationists and the powerful electric utility has reached a crucial stage. As a last-ditch effort, Larson and her friends have filed a federal lawsuit.
The plaintiffs say the power plant will use obscene amounts of water, devastate the drinking-water supply, ruin habitats of threatened and endangered species, and have a dangerous effect on air quality and global warming. They accuse FPL and government agencies of ignoring local residents' concerns and skirting environmental protections.
This, they say, is David versus a mega-utility Goliath backed by an army of corporate lawyers.
FPL balks at the charges. The plant "is a Next Generation Clean Energy Center... one of the cleanest of its kind in the nation," company spokeswoman Pat Davis wrote in an email. The site, she says, "was chosen because it meets important criteria for siting a power plant. For example, it is located adjacent to the electrical substation and transmission lines needed to deliver power to the electric grid."
FPL is required by law to provide reliable, affordable service to its 4.4 million customers. Since the last power plant was built in Palm Beach County in 1963, demand has increased 890 percent. The company has spent years satisfying complicated regulatory requirements to build the new plant, and the environmentalists' roadblock is a surprise hassle introduced late in the game. Davis called the lawsuit "another example of the group's meritless claims."
Here in the unpredictable swamps of South Florida, though, scrappy underdogs have prevailed before.
To reach the site of the West County Energy Center, travel west — way west — on Southern Boulevard, past the Florida Turnpike, past the car dealerships and box stores that have sprung up in recent years on once-wild fringes. Go beyond the South Florida Fairgrounds, past a few remaining fruit stands and plant nurseries, past the giraffes and ostriches at Lion Country Safari, now encroached upon by development. Finally, the landscape gives way to vast sawgrass and sky.
The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge sits on the south side of the street. Across from it lies the entrance to Palm Beach Aggregates — a busy rock-mining company that sells concrete and fill. Hundreds of dump trucks come and go each day. In 2005, FPL purchased a 220-acre parcel of land within the Aggregates site for $42 million, where the electric company has now almost finished building the innovative West County Energy Center.
At first, FPL said the power plant would be a combined-cycle plant with two generating units and a capacity of 3,300 megawatts. Each of the two units would consist of three combustion turbines that are "similar to, but larger and more efficient than, traditional jet engines." Those would be hooked up to generators that produce electricity. In addition, the heat given off by those turbines would be captured to create even more electricity.
FPL said that the West County Energy Center would pump almost 15 million gallons of water per day from the Upper Floridian Aquifer. Wastewater, in turn, would be shot 3,200 feet deep into the ground via a method called deep-well injection.
The plant will be fueled by liquid natural gas. According to court documents, the fuel arrives by ship at ports in Mississippi and Alabama, and it's funneled into an underground pipeline that runs across the Gulf of Mexico and the State of Florida. The pipeline was already 691 miles long. A new section of it — 34.26 miles — extends to reach the West County Energy Center. A company called Gulfstream Natural Gas is building it.
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.
"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.)
The prosecution argued that the protesters had cost the Sheriff's Office and the Aggregates time and money.
The defense countered that the protesters were acting for the good of the community. "They [pursued legal avenues against the power plant] for years and years and years, and no one's listening," their defense attorney said. "Some of these guys are like Gandhi with a sweater vest!"
Judge Cohen told the jury they could find the defendants not guilty if "an imminent and impending danger made it necessary to commit the crime." In the end, the jury let all four off on the illegal assembly charge but found them guilty of trespassing and resisting an officer.
But they sure felt bad about it. In the hallway after the trial, jurors gushed sheepishly to the activists that they admired their spirit. "Our hearts were all for you guys and gals," said a white-haired man who hadn't known of FPL's plans. "I live within ten miles of where the plant is being built. I think we're all appalled."
Even a juror who'd admitted owning FPL stock said he wasn't happy about the plant. "It needs more publicity," he said.
One juror quipped that if she'd been more aware, "I probably would have been one of the protesters!"
Collectively, the jury apologized for doling out the guilty verdicts but said they had to consider the rights of the businessmen and the cops.
The four defendants nodded politely and thanked them for the sentiment. But they couldn't really relate. They felt the same about their civil liberties as they did about the environment, several explained: Why compromise?
Environmental wars are fought not only at construction sites but in science journals and commissioned reports. FPL has a slew of scientists on its side — and on its payroll. They include staff as well as outside consultants. The environmentalists, in comparison, have two unpaid scientists as their main witnesses. Betwixt them is a subplot laced with intrigue.
Dr. Sydney Bacchus holds a PhD in the field of hydroecology. She describes herself as "the infamous Dr. Bacchus who says the secret words."
In 2005, she explains, she spoke out at a public hearing against a proposed mining operation in Central Florida. Soon afterward, a rival and supporter of the mine named Robert Kirkner complained that by testifying, she was practicing geology without a license. Bacchus says Kirkner's charges were based on her saying words like topsoil. Kirkner requested the Board of Professional Regulation to fine her $5,000 and publicly reprimand her. He was backed by another prominent geologist and mining consultant: Thomas Missimer, who would pop up later as a consultant for FPL's power plant. Bacchus saw their moves as an affront to her freedom of speech, and she fought back in court. She was eventually offered a settlement of $100,000.
Bacchus says her case illustrates how scientists can be quashed by business and political interests. "It's pretty astounding," she says. Because Bacchus owns her own environmental consulting company in Athens, Georgia, she is free to say what she pleases. Sometimes, that gets her labeled as "a typical tree-hugging environmentalist who really twists the facts to what support her cause," as an anonymous commenter called her online.
On a late summer day, Bacchus drove near the Aggregates site while jamming out to a CD by Eco Elvis (featuring songs such as "Viva Las Vegans"). The slender, long-haired scientist stopped her car and pointed to a batch of frail-looking pine trees that had lost their needles.
The dying pine trees, she said, are evidence of underground water sources being depleted. "You are watching the desertification of Florida," she warned. "When you suck the water out of the ground, you alter all of the surrounding environment." Trees die and dry out, making them susceptible to hurricane winds and turning them into tinder for wildfires. Animals lose their habitat. "The whole ecosystem collapses," she said sadly. Bacchus contends that the amount of water the West County Energy Center will draw daily is equivalent to the amount used by 500,000 homes.
In its application, FPL explains that drinking water sits about 1,950 feet below the ground. FPL intends to inject its wastewater much deeper, at 3,200 feet. A solid confining unit in the middle, FPL's paperwork says, "will prevent the upward migration of the injected fluids" into the drinking water.
Bacchus begs to differ. She describes the ground beneath us as fractured, with all subterranean water systems interconnected. Any wastewater pumped into the ground will eventually travel into the drinking water, she insists, as well as into regional lakes and marshes and even out to the ocean.
Dr. William Louda agrees. Louda, 61, is an environmental geochemist who teaches at Florida Atlantic University. He also holds a position on the Town Council in Loxahatchee Groves. In his office, wearing a cowboy hat and a pair of gray Levis, he plops down a briefcase and describes his concerns.
Think of Florida as "a carbonate sponge," he says, in which water percolates subtly between layers. He believes that injected wastewater could potentially migrate upward to taint the drinking water.
And, Louda says, guess who wrote a paper about the phenomenon of "Vertical Migration of Municipal Wastewater in Deep Injection Well Systems, South Florida, USA," in the Hydroecology Journal last year? Thomas Missimer, Bacchus' old foe who later testified on behalf of FPL. During his testimony, Louda says, Missimer ignored his own research. "I call him a geostitute," Louda says. "A person who sells his expertise for the benefit of his employer."
Missimer did not return calls for comment, but an administrative judge ruled that, although Missimer had found upward migration of wastewater at three other South Florida sites, the geologist gave sufficient scientific reasons why he did not think such problems would occur at FPL's proposed injection wells.
Louda echoed Bacchus' concerns about the plant's heavy water demands and added his own concerns about nitrogen and sulfur oxides leading to acid rain. He agrees that "a natural-gas-fired, combined cycle plant is the cleanest fossil fuel plant. But it still puts out over 100 tons of [dangerous emissions] in the air." As for the need for that Unit Three? That's "a bunch of buffalo chips," Louda says.
Louda shakes his head and makes some sobering predictions: "Fresh, potable water is the problem of the 21st Century. The next war will be over fresh water. I think man is done. I give him three generations."
The U.S. Department of Energy rated FPL number one in the nation for energy conservation, and its sister company, FPL Energy, operates the world's largest solar field in the Mojave Desert as well as 58 wind power sites. Locally, however, the company's environmental credibility took a hit this summer when its Sunshine Energy Program was revealed to be a bust.
Nearly 39,000 FPL customers paid an extra $9.75 per month with the understanding that those fees would be used to develop renewable energy. An audit found that 69 percent of the funds — $11.4 million — was spent on marketing materials about renewable energy rather than, as most participants assumed, on renewable energy.
Customers are not getting refunds. FPL argues that it had, after all, purchased 952,000 renewable energy credits with the money, which in turn helped construct a solar energy project in Sarasota County. According to news reports, that project powers about 20 homes. "We appreciate your participation, and you can be proud of what you helped to accomplish," FPL says on its website.
FPL now plans to build three solar energy facilities in Florida by 2011. Combined, the three plants will generate 110 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve about 35,000 people.
Alex Larson, unsurprisingly, considers it all a bunch of lip service. "I've seen these articles about all the solar they're gonna do," she barks. "They've bought nothing and done nothing. The emperor has no clothes! He's naked, and that's a lipstick tube! And it's tiny!"
The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, in commenting on FPL's Unit Three, suggested that the utility beef up its commitment to renewable energy. As it stands, FPL's Ten Year Plan covering 2008-17 actually increases reliance on fossil fuels by a couple of percentage points to 82 percent of its energy mix.
The council also warned about the power plant's water usage — especially considering that in recent years, the county imposed water restrictions and "Lake Okeechobee [has been] near record lows." The agency again warned of the effects of air emissions into the sensitive Everglades. "The full economic cost of allowing these emissions into the environment is not being considered," read the report.
Since last summer, Larson, Waite, Tsolkas, Silver, and friends have tried to thwart the plant in any way possible. They appealed some of the rulings. They attended as many hearings as they could manage. But each hearing addressed only a little piece of the puzzle. At every step, FPL was found to have met its legal requirements.
For example, Silver attended the hearing about the pipeline, but the judge wouldn't let him address concerns about potential explosions — only about the digging of the trench.
The activists visited the site where the pipeline was being laid and discovered more than 100 burrows of gopher tortoises, a "species of special concern." They hoped a judge would halt construction; instead, the tortoises were "relocated."
When they challenged the pipeline's permit on a number of grounds, Gulfstream, the pipeline building company, changed its path.
The environmentalists chided Crist when he came to the Everglades for a news conference to announce big plans to buy land from sugar giant U.S. Sugar and restore the ecosystem. They showed up at a County Commission meeting dressed in clown suits. They held another protest at the Aggregates on September 20.
The group argued that no one in power was looking at the big picture. They hoped a judge would require an in-depth review and a detailed environmental impact statement to examine the effects of the plant, the pipeline, and the deep-well injection over time. Judge Middlebrooks — the same judge who stopped Scripps — was assigned to the case.
Larson sighed. "[FPL is] assuming we get [to trial] and the judge will say, 'Well, it's already built.' Just do an [impact statement]! Prove us wrong!"
FPL's lawyers shot back, arguing that the law specified opportunities and deadlines for public input and that the environmentalists had missed many of them. They'd been "sleeping on their rights for over 18 months."
In court papers, FPL sounded tired of the hassle. "Plaintiffs continually try to convince the court that the WCEC is part of a segmented or phased project designed to circumvent environmental laws," lawyers wrote. "This is simply an inaccurate representation of the facts."
If construction were halted, FPL's lawyers wrote, it would cost $1 million per day in delays. And besides, they argued, federal courts did not hold the proper jurisdiction to decide the case. FPL asserted that the plaintiffs had virtually no chance of prevailing.
At a hearing in October, two Fish and Wildlife biologists testified that they had written up some concerns about the power plant during the permitting process but that supervisors had effectively ignored them. Judge Middlebrooks heard them out, but he wondered aloud whether he even had jurisdiction to address many of the issues in the case.
After the hearing, Tsolkas was still hopeful: "We're supposedly spending $10 billion restoring the Everglades. You would think they would have jurisdiction at the federal level."
He noted that if it weren't for Alex Larson's reading the paper three years ago, "you could be out there fishing in Loxahatchee, look up, and go, 'Oh my God — what the fuck is that?' "
As the federal case progressed, environmentalists marked their calendars for October 27, the date of the last big administrative hearing for Unit Three before the matter would go to the governor and Siting Board for final approval.
But the hearing was abruptly canceled. All of the official parties involved had filed a joint motion saying they had no qualms about the third unit, so there was no reason for a hearing. The judge relinquished his jurisdiction to the Department of Environmental Protection. With that move, the Siting Board was now irrelevant. The governor's approval was no longer needed for Unit Three. There would be no more hearings. The environmentalists were effectively shut out.
Tsolkas sent out a call to storm the offices of DEP on the 27th instead.
On that Monday, about 20 young environmentalists in jeans and T-shirts showed up. They were met by about a dozen representatives from DEP, mostly in pressed shirts and khakis, who invited them to sit around a conference table. Tsolkas took control and laid out seven points of concern. DEP staff politely took notes.
Attorney Barry Silver, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, spoke up in a grave voice. He pointed to a piece of DEP letterhead. "It says here 'more protection, less process,' " he noted. "I suggest you remove this phrase from your letterhead." He then pointed to the state flag in the room. "There are two things on there that have been obliterated by the government of Florida," he said, referring to the Seminoles and the wetlands. "If that flag means anything besides decoration, you should try to protect them." He offered free legal representation to any staff scientists who might defect from DEP and join the environmentalists' cause.
Mike Halpin, the DEP administrator in charge of the siting process, weighed in by phone from Tallahassee. "My job is to execute the law as it's written," he stated. FPL had met every regulatory requirement. If the environmentalists weren't happy with regulations, he suggested, "Go talk to your legislator."
As the tone deteriorated, the meeting was snapped to an end, with DEP staff bristling at the suggestion that they were somehow at fault.
"We don't work here for the money," noted one.
"Whether you like it or not, FPL has rights," another said.
"Why don't [these environmentalists] apply for jobs at DEP?" another asked.
Tsolkas walked out to the street corner, where he assumed a familiar pose. He slipped a devil mask on his face, turned toward passing traffic, and unfurled a banner that read "DEP: Don't Expect Protection."
Later that day, FPL Group released news of its third-quarter profits: $774 million, up from $533 million last year.
Electricity usage? Down 4.3 percent.