Arizona Utility just won’t allow this historic black community – Mother Jones

The Salt River Project power plant smokestacks near Randolph, Arizona. Caitlin O’Hara/Guardian

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the climate desk Cooperation.

A hand full weary residents gathered at Randolph’s windowless church to reflect on an electric utility’s recent effort to expand its power plant — a polluting gas-fired facility adjacent to the community that the state regulator has blocked on environmental and health grounds.

A historic black community in central Arizona flanked by railroads and heavy hazardous industries, Randolph is a small dusty place where residents are exposed to the state’s worst air quality while lacking basic amenities like fire hydrants, garbage disposal and health care.

Last year, the community celebrated a historic victory when state regulators rejected a proposal by public utility Salt River Project (SRP) to more than double the size of its power plant, ruling that doing so would and would not cause further harm to Randolph residents in the public interest.

It was a major victory for clean energy and environmental justice in Arizona, according to the Sierra Club, the environmental group, which condemned the proposed expansion as “textbook environmental racism.”

Ron Jordan’s family has lived in Randolph since the 1930’s.

Caitlin O’Hara/Guardian

But the SRP has refused to take no for an answer, and residents fear the state regulator could reverse their decision. “We won, they lost, but they won’t accept it and they keep coming back. That’s not democratic,” said Ron Jordan, 77, whose family has lived in Randolph since the 1930s. “They dangle treats in front of us, but the community doesn’t want that, we already have too much pollution. That is not right.”

At a recent community meeting held at the humble church, SRP offered to fund, among other things, a new community center, air quality monitoring, and $50,000 for landscaping and signage if residents gave up their opposition to the power plant expansion. “We don’t give up no matter what they offer,” said Guadalupe Felix, 45, whose family has lived in Randolph for three generations. “This plant will kill us, we’re already suffocating.”

According to David Pomerantz, director of the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI), the community says it won’t back down, but statewide energy providers have a track record of getting what they want. “Taking no for an answer is incredibly common.”

Randolph is a The unincorporated Pinal County town was first settled in the 1920s and ’30s by mostly black families from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas who came to pick cotton in the Gila River Valley. It was one of the few places where black families could buy real estate, and by the 1960s the close-knit farming community, also home to Mexicans and Native Americans, boasted thriving shops, bars, churches, and gas stations.

The mechanization of the cotton industry led to the economic and demographic decline of the community, after which the nearby town of Coolidge began annexing the land around Randolph and turning it into an industrial area.

Today, only about 150 residents live in an area seven football fields long and three fields wide, some in houses or land bought from their ancestors. There is no shop, no bar, no gas station and no park, only the church with a single tall palm tree for shade.

The farm fields and desert plains where kids rode bikes and hunted roadrunners are long gone, and Randolph is now practically surrounded by polluting infrastructure, including gas plants, pipelines, a hazardous waste dump, and a steel company contracted to build Donald Trump’s border wall became.

The community is literally surrounded by cumulative and acute dangers.

According to the American Lung Association and the Environmental Protection Agency, Pinal County has some of the worst air pollution in Arizona. It is also bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, as persistent drought and water shortages are forcing farmers to leave fields fallow or sell them, many to solar farms. In August 2021, a gas line explosion threw Randolph residents out of their beds and ignited a massive fireball that killed farm worker Luis Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter Valeria.

“We don’t give up no matter what they offer,” said Guadalupe Felix, pictured with her husband Esteban Valencia.

Caitlin O’Hara/Guardian

The ACC is the state utility regulator responsible for approving SRP’s power plants and transmission lines, as well as tariff increases and new energy projects for private power, water and telecommunications companies. Each state has a version of the ACC, most commonly referred to as the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

As the community, the Sierra Club, and others organized against the plant expansion, SRP announced plans to fund paving, landscaping projects, and a scholarship and vocational training program, as well as an attempt to have Randolph recognized as a National Historic Site.

In April 2022, the ACC rejected SRP’s expansion plan after concluding that the utility company had not considered viable green energy alternatives, such as solar and battery storage, before expanding the power plant – which could adversely affect air quality, particularly for residents of Randolph would deteriorate who live next door. (The Commission rejected a recommendation by its Power Plant and Line Construction Committee to issue the environmental certificate.)

SRP requested a new hearing, which the ACC refused. The utility then filed a lawsuit in the Maricopa County Superior Court — and lost. “The [ACC] determined that the need for the proposed project is outweighed by its environmental impact. SRP has not established this decision as unlawful or unreasonable,” the court ruled in January 2023.


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