A Polluter Lies to New Orleans City Council, Still Gets to Build Gas Plant
An independent investigation revealed this week that Entergy Corporation was complicit in faking public support for a proposed gas-fired power plant in New Orleans. Despite the company undermining the approval process through deceit, the government is still allowing Entergy to construct the plant.
Over the previous year, paid actors showed up to city council meetings to speak in support of the plant. When they were revealed to be actors, Entergy tried to claim that its public affairs firm Hawthorn Group had hired the actors without Entergy’s knowledge. The city council ordered an investigation. The results, released Monday, found that Entergy “knew or should have known that such conduct occurred.”
“If Hawthorne can get more people I will pay,” Charles Rice, who was then the CEO of Entergy New Orleans, wrote in one text message. “This is war and we need all the foot shoulders [soldiers] we can muster,” he wrote in another.
Yet despite a long list of damning details included in the 62-page report, the council voted Wednesday to give Entergy nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The punishment for the utility company, which is a member of a corporate family of utilities that just reported quarterly earnings of more than $500 million? A $5 million fine.
Plans to build the ratepayer-funded plant, which the council approved in March, will go forward for now.
“A $5 million fine is not a remedy for what went wrong with the public process,” says Earthjustice Attorney Susan Miller, who is representing several local groups fighting the plant. “This report makes it clear that Entergy violated the law, and the law now requires the council to hold a new hearing and re-vote on the decision to approve Entergy’s gas plant.”
The report details Entergy’s complicity in a covert campaign aimed at drowning out voices of opposition to the utility’s proposal to build a $210 million gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East. The campaign, orchestrated by Hawthorn Group, a public affairs firm well known for “astroturfing” campaigns, involved paying actors to attend public meetings and speak in favor of Entergy’s proposal, which is vehemently opposed by the local community.
In April, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of several local community organizations that claims that the council and its utilities committee violated Louisiana’s constitution and Open Meetings law at two meetings where local residents were literally locked out of meeting rooms. More than 100 local residents left unable to voice their opposition — because the rooms were filled to capacity with Entergy supporters, who it was later revealed, were actually paid actors.
The lawsuit has yet to be decided.
“A locked door is the antithesis of an open meeting, but that’s what people faced when they arrived at the Council’s Utilities Committee meeting,” says Dr. Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “Councilmembers, who are elected by residents, should want to hear from them on decisions that affect our city.”
Entergy plans to build the proposed gas power plant on a FEMA-designated floodplain within two miles of homes, churches, and schools, in an area made up predominantly of Vietnamese, African American and Latino communities. The plant is projected to produce billions of pounds of toxic air pollution and increase flood risk in an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Together with public interest advocates, local residents of New Orleans East revealed how Entergy relied on flimsy assumptions about rising customer demand to justify the plant, while failing to seriously consider energy efficiency programs or solar power as cost-effective alternatives. The opposition rapidly gained ground by shooting holes in Entergy’s proposal and highlighting the dire impacts on local residents.
As the investigators’ report reveals, Entergy was worried.
“We have to get a strategy around this,” Rice wrote in an August 2017 email. “I am going to work with Chanel [LaGarde] to get an outside consultant, the Hawthorne [sic] group to begin some type of campaign/strategy against the alliance.” The “alliance” that Rice was looking to counter is the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a nonprofit organization in New Orleans that advocates on behalf of utility customers for fair, affordable, environmentally responsible energy, and is one of Earthjustice’s clients.
Entergy then approved Hawthorn’s proposed strategy to pay $6,500 for supporters to sign up and speak at an October 2017 public hearing. Internal Entergy communications included in the investigators’ report show how this strategy was repeated at a February meeting — and how Entergy pushed to have their paid supporters arrive at that meeting before New Orleans East residents got there.
It was at this February meeting that local activist Danil Faust first brought Entergy’s paid actor strategy to light. But it wasn’t until May that the campaign was revealed in its entirety by a local news outlet, The Lens NOLA.
Entergy’s response was to blame Hawthorn Group — and its subcontractor Crowds on Demand — and deny any knowledge of work being carried out on their behalf. As the investigators’ report clearly shows, this was another lie.
With Entergy found to be culpable in their own nefarious scheme, it is now up to the City Council to decide how to move forward. In addition to the $5 million fine, which is said to be the largest fine imposed in the council’s history, two councilmembers have already voiced potential support for a revote on the gas plant.
“I believe the (previous) vote was necessary based on the evidence that we were presented with by our experts,” said Councilman Jared Brossett. “However, after hearing today and the many months of discussion and debate with the public, I am open to revoting on this matter.”