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    Power crisis seen in Pompano protest

    The uproar over building plants to sell power to utilities highlights the tensions the nation faces to supply power.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


    POMPANO BEACH -- Half a dozen children donned surgical masks. One man waved an X-ray of his lungs. About 300 protesters, some bused in from surrounding communities, packed a Pompano Beach City Commission meeting this week while two airplanes buzzed overhead, towing banners urging commissioners to reject the "smoggy power plant."

    The target: Enron, a Texas company with strong ties to the White House. The company wants to build a 510-megawatt power plant on 28 acres behind a Pompano Beach flea market.

    Next week, as rolling blackouts continue to haunt California, the Bush Administration plans to release a report outlining a new national energy policy. The report will call for building 1,300 new power plants nationwide, or one a week for the next 25 years.

    But try telling the people of Pompano Beach that a looming energy crisis requires putting a plant in their back yard, plus two more a mile away in neighboring Deerfield Beach.

    "No power plants!" the crowd outside City Hall chanted Tuesday night. They toted hand-lettered posters with slogans like "Santa Doesn't Want to Slide Down Enron's Chimney!"

    "The attitude of my constituents -- they're going absolutely nuts," said Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs. She has suggested the county impose a one-year moratorium on new power plants because the air is bad enough in Broward: "Any additional pollution is not needed."

    Enron's two Broward plants are the leading edge of a wave of 50 or so new power plants proposed statewide by companies with no ties to Florida's major utilities. Known as merchant plants, they would sell electricity wholesale to major utilities, rather than providing it to residential and business customers as Tampa Electric Co. and Florida Power do.

    State law says the Public Service Commission is supposed to regulate where power plants are built, based on the need for electricity. The Florida Supreme Court ruled last year that the law blocks the construction of larger merchant plants because the out-of-state companies cannot prove they are needed.

    However, a little-known loophole in the law allows Enron and other out-of-state companies to build power plants anywhere so long as they are below a certain size. The smaller plants are less efficient than standard sized facilities. They only need local zoning permits and an air pollution permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

    The loophole has been on the books for nearly three decades but until recently it was seldom used, said Al Linero of the DEP's air regulation bureau. Since 1999 about 20 plants statewide have been proposed using the loophole. Three plants taking advantage of the loophole are in the Tampa Bay area. One, developed by a Clearwater company, is under construction in the Shady Hills area of Pasco County. Two more are likely near Port Manatee, at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

    In Broward, Enron officials say they have to build two small plants within a mile of each other because neither site was big enough for one large plant. Spokesman Eric Thode said the pair are "perfectly situated" and that opposition to them is based on "rumors and innuendo." DEP officials say the Pompano plant qualifies for an air permit, but they are now concerned about the cumulative impact of the Deerfield Beach plants proposed by Enron and another Texas company, El Paso Energy. El Paso's plant would be next door to Enron's.

    Alarmed by the plants' statewide proliferation, state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, tried in vain to impose a one-year moratorium.

    "I don't want these things to start coming up like Walgreens and McDonald's and gas stations," he said. "I'm not sure we want merchant plants in some of these neighborhoods they want to get in."

    That's why it's important to stand up to Enron in Broward, say the company's opponents. Enron and its employees have given more money to George W. Bush's political campaigns over the years than any other company, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Enron's chairman donated $100,000 to pay Bush's legal bills during Florida's presidential recount.

    If a crowd of angry voters can stop a company with the political clout of Enron, opponents believe, that could slow down others.

    "We're in the formative stages of deregulation, and right now people feel like they have a chance to have a voice," said George Cavros of the Broward Sierra Club, who helped organize the anti-Enron drive.

    A state commission appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush has recommended a sweeping program of deregulation, doing away with any impediment to building new plants, including those blocked by the Supreme Court. But that report made no mention of the cumulative impact 50 or so plants might have on air pollution, water consumption or public health in a state that ranks fourth in the nation in the amount of toxic chemicals released by power plants.

    In some parts of the state, plants like Enron's have been welcomed by local officials eager for a boost in the tax base. But Enron in particular has run into opposition in places besides Broward.

    In St. Lucie County, Enron's plans for a 510-megawatt plant in an orange grove drew hundreds of protesters who said it would change their neighborhood's rural character. County commissioners still voted 3-2 for Enron last month.

    Three weeks ago Enron announced it wants to build a 360-megawatt plant in Homestead, between Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. The proposal immediately drew fire from environmental groups and the park's superintendents.

    So far, though, nothing compares to the furor in Pompano Beach. Nearby cities have challenged the DEP permit. The nearby flea market has rounded up thousands of petition signatures. The founder of one of Broward's most popular tourist attractions, Butterfly World in nearby Coconut Creek, has warned the plant will kill the endangered species fluttering around his lush gardens.

    "These creatures have zero tolerance for air that is not near perfect like their habitat," founder Ronald Boedner wrote the DEP.

    Enron officials have been taken aback by the vehemence of their Broward foes -- especially, they say, since their two plants would primarily burn natural gas, which is cleaner than coal or oil.

    "That's clean power," agreed the DEP's Linero.

    Yet the Pompano plant alone would still emit 573 tons of nitrogen oxide a year and 166 tons of sulfur dioxide a year, along with other pollutants. And both it and the one in Deerfield Beach would sometimes burn diesel fuel as a backup. Diesel, in addition to being a dirtier fuel, also is considered a carcinogen.

    A consultant hired by Pompano Beach reported this week that the cancer risk from the plant is fairly low, though, because only 20 people out of a million might develop the disease. But Margate Vice Mayor Pam Donovan declared, "If it's going to take one life, that's enough to turn it down."

    A few hours before the Pompano Beach City Commission voted to postpone until June a final vote on Enron's project, Vice President Dick Cheney was warning CNN viewers that the country needs to move quickly to build more power plants. Enron's Pompano Beach opponents do not buy that.

    "They're acting like the issue is energy," said flea market manager Mark Hintz, who hired the planes to buzz City Hall, "but the real issue is money."

    One merchant plant developer agreed that the reason for Florida's power plant boom is profit. "The people who built merchant plants in California made a fortune," said John Ellis of IPS Avon Park, the Clearwater company that has launched three in Florida.

    Yet Enron officials insist they are filling a need. Florida's energy consumption is growing as is its population, and the new plants will be crucial in supplying that power.

    So far, though, Enron has no contract with Florida Power & Light to supply peaking power in South Florida or with any other Florida utility, although they deny they will sell power outside the state. FPL officials say they can provide for their area's energy needs without relying on Enron.

    The combined output of the 20 merchant plants totals 20,000 megawatts, nearly half the power already produced statewide, according to the DEP's Linero. That's also the amount of power that the state's established utilities are planning to add over the next decade to keep pace with the state's need, according to PSC officials. To Enron's opponents, that's proof its plants are unnecessary.

    "If we build this plant and it's not needed," Enron spokeswoman Lea Gibson Sooter said, "then it's our $250-million mistake."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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