For 17-year-old Michelle Gutierrez, the youth rally held Friday in downtown Los Angeles and across the nation to raise awareness about the urgency of climate change was deeply personal.
“It’s a topic that directly affects us, my family, my friends, my community,” the San Fernando High School student said.
Gutierrez has grown up watching the flashing lights of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Sun Valley natural gas power plant from her back yard, but for a long time she did not think much about it.
The familiar red-and-white smoke stacks of the natural gas generating station, which could be seen from all over the Sun Valley and Pacoima area, melts into a backdrop of industrial buildings, rumbling trucks and the train tracks along San Fernando Road.
But in recent months, Gutierrez joined other young people in her community who are part of a youth group formed by local organization Pacoima Beautiful that is researching the plant and learning about its history and fate.
The power plant was built in 1953, and is one of four that exists in the Los Angeles basin. The LADWP board recently voted to phase out the three others — that dot the coast line and are in Wilmington, Long Beach and Marina del Rey — but there are currently no similar plans for the plant in their neighborhood.
Although a study is being done by the LADWP to figure out how the city could phase out the Sun Valley station as part of an effort to switched over to 100% renewable energy sources by 2045, Gutierrez and others are worried that if they don’t speak up, their power plant might be placed low on the list.
It was that concern that she and other young people who live in the northeast Valley went to the downtown Los Angeles rally.
“I feel like our community gets left behind on working on these projects,” she said.
What is more, she is hoping that if the change is to build a future economy based on renewables, that it will also boost the fortunes of her and her neighbors.
“I feel like if they do reach a point where they want to convert to cleaner energy, we want those jobs to go to the people of our community first,” she said.
While the power plant is run on natural gas, and has pollution control equipment to limit its effects, there will always be a concern about the risks of experiencing damaging environmental effects from that plant, according to Pacoima Beautiful’s policy director Andres Ramirez.
During emergencies, the Valley generating station could potentially get a permit to run on diesel fuel. The LADWP board voted in 2016 to allow that to happen, in response to the Aliso Canyon gas leak, as a last resort, in the event that it were needed to prevent blackouts.
While it ended up that the plant never went to diesel fuel, that is not good enough.
“These kinds of things can happen,” he said.
In order for the LADWP to get a “variance” to allow diesel fuel to be made an option for use at the power plant, the municipal utility must pay a starting fee of $1.5 million. The fee goes paying for air filters and electric buses for people who live near the power station.
The top officials at the LADWP said Friday that they are receptive to the northeast San Fernando Valley’s concerns. The utility’s chief sustainability officer Nancy Sutley said that it was “fair for them to raise that concern,” about the power plant.
“That’s why we’re being very careful about the study” that the utility is doing about how best to convert to entirely renewable energy. She said they have to balance that goal with keeping the electricity running in the city.
The LADWP is already working with community groups and holding meetings to ensure that they are apprised of the needs of people who are affected by the effort to change the source of energy the city runs on, she said.
As for the use of diesel fuel at the power plant, “it’s something we are hoping never to have to do,” she said.
Sutley also said that the other three plants were being phased out because they were all being cooled using ocean water, which put them on a separate schedule from the Valley power plant.
But youth participating in the strike were not just focused on the power plant. The list is long for the number of pollution sources that could potentially affect their and their neighbors’ health, including those raising the risk for asthma and other respiratory illnesses, they say.
“How much time to you have?” said Pacoima resident Victor Sanchez, 16. Like Gutierrez, he lives mere blocks away from the power plant, and is familiar with its smoke stacks.
Sutley said that the smoke stacks are no longer used, and a vestige of previous versions of the power plant. But they serve as a reminder and a symbol of what their community typically has to contend with, when it comes to the effects of fossil fuels.
Sanchez and Guttierez both said that they have seen their community with new eyes through their participation in Pacoima Beautiful’s youth group, which also organizes camping trips that gets them exposed to nature and environments different from the ones they are familiar with in their own neighborhoods.
Pacoima Beautiful organizer Yesenia Cruz said that the northeast Valley is filled with industrial areas, and freeways, as well as landfills.
“There is a lot of different industrial areas that pollute, and there isn’t enough green spaces or parks to be able to absorb some of that carbon that is being released into the atmosphere,” she said.
The students, who come from surrounding schools, have also gotten involved in studying the air quality in their area. There is no stationary monitoring site to track the particulate matter emissions in their area, so they conducted their own study with a mobile monitor.
And attendance at youth group meetings, which happen weekly, is high, with many students taking a great interest in what is affecting them directly, according to Cruz.
That could translate to their concerns being better represented in the larger conversation about the effects of climate change, and the solutions, she said.
“It’s very important that youth of color are leading this movement, because we do see that youth are taking space in this movement because they see the urgency and the importance of being able to take action regarding climate change,” she said. “We are in the front-line community.”