Tree-huggers mobilize to stop FPL from building Everglades power plant

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.

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Deirdra Funcheon