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Residents brought in U.S. activist Erin Brockovich to generate publicity for their fight against a proposed Oakville, Ont., power plant. ((Wade Payne/Knoxville News Sentinel/Associated Press) )

Opposition parties are accusing the provincial government of playing politics by backing off plans to build a natural gas plant in Oakville amid intense opposition from area residents.

People who live near the site of the proposed gas plant — next to the Ford manufacturing plant at Ford Drive and the Queen Elizabeth Way — say it's much too close to homes and schools.

Local opponents rallied at the Ontario legislature and brought in famed American environmentalist Erin Brockovich to help generate publicity for their fight with the government.

Oakville Liberal Kevin Flynn even battled his own government's plan for the gas plant, which the province said was necessary to meet electricity demand.

However, Energy Minister Brad Duguid said Thursday the government has had a change of heart regarding the Oakville gas plant.

"As we're putting together an update to our long-term energy plan, it has become clear we no longer need this plant in Oakville. With transmission investments we can keep the lights on and still shut down all dirty coal-fired generation," he said in a statement.

Duguid said there were higher demand projections for electricity in the area when the plant was proposed four years ago.

Liberals 'in trouble in Oakville'

Both the NDP and Progressive Conservatives say they believe the Liberals pulled the plug on the plant when they realized it could cost them a seat.

"It seems pretty clear that the decision they're making is not based on the analysis that they've been pushing for ages," said New Democrat Peter Tabuns.

"For ages they've said, 'We need this plant,' but I think they've done polling and I think they see themselves as in trouble in Oakville."

Oakville residents have been battling the 975-megawatt plant for a year, arguing it would be too close to their backyards. They say 11,000 homes and 16 schools would be within three kilometres of the facility.

Residents fear an accidental explosion at the site, located near railway lines and major roads, could be devastating.

A blast at a Connecticut power plant in February killed six workers. That plant was separated from communities by a river and buffer zones.

Brockovich, who usually is paid about $25,000 per speech, suggested last week to residents that they telephone politicians to push for change. The fact Oakville is an affluent community shouldn't matter, she said.

"Whether you're rich or poor or black or white, Republican or Democrat, any one of us can be subjected to public health and safety threats," she said.

TransCanada, which was awarded a 20-year contract to build and operate the plant, has been in negotiations to address residents' concerns.

Former Microsoft Canada president Frank Clegg — an Oakville resident and chairman of the Citizens for Clean Air group that is fighting the plant — said TransCanada is in litigation with the town.

A company safety report released last week said TransCanada has operated natural gas-fired power plants in Ontario for almost 20 years with no public safety incidents.