NEW ORLEANS -- A major utility company will learn next week whether the use of paid actors to gin up phony support for a new gas-fired power plant will result in the project being delayed or derailed by New Orleans' City Council.
Entergy New Orleans has agreed to a $5 million penalty in return for permission to forge ahead with plant construction. Critics who dominated testimony at a public hearing Thursday say the penalty is too small. They also say the project should be scuttled or that the regulatory review process should begin anew.
"Not enough!" one opponent shouted during the council's utility committee hearing as chairwoman Helena Moreno defended a proposed settlement.
"I believe it is not prudent, nor possible to scrap the entire plant," Moreno said during an opening statement.
But an expected vote from the five-member committee never happened. Instead, the full seven-member council — some of whom took office after a council vote in favor of the new plant last year — will vote on the settlement Feb. 21.
The project planned for eastern New Orleans won council approval last March. Then came revelations that contractors hired by Entergy New Orleans to promote the plant had hired phony supporters to attend and speak at public hearings.
That gave new life to opposition from residents who fear the costs being passed on to consumers and who have environmental concerns about the plant. Dozens of protesters were among a crowd of roughly 200 at Thursday's hearing.
Several residents spoke in favor of the plant and Entergy's contention that it's needed to ensure power availability at times of peak electricity usage. But opponents dominated the discussion.
The Rev. Gregory Manning invoked a painful memory for the city's sports fans: NFL game officials' failure to call a crucial penalty during a championship game, costing the Saints a likely trip to the Super Bowl.
"Make a call," he yelled, waving a yellow penalty flag. He concluded by tossing a red "challenge" flag — like the one NFL coaches can throw to demand a review of some referee calls — on the table in front of him.
Investigators found last year that the utility "knew or should have known" that some who spoke at public hearings were paid to support the project.
"We are ultimately responsible for any breach of trust that happened on our watch," David Ellis, who was named Entergy New Orleans CEO in December, told the committee.
Later, an Entergy lawyer drew a stern negative response from Moreno when he suggested that wording in a resolution embodying the settlement be changed so that the $5 million payment was not referred to as a sanction or penalty.
"I am absolutely against changing one word in this document," Moreno said.
The settlement calls for the penalty payment to be used to help provide more reliable power for the city's troubled street drainage and drinking water system. The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, which operates those systems, has suffered myriad problems including outages in parts of its own antiquated power system. Loss of power to drainage pumps has led to street flooding, and loss of power for the drinking water pumping system has led to low water pressure and periodic "boil water" orders for parts of the city.