150 protesters stage rally outside, vow to file new lawsuits
View our video highlights by Billy Ortiz
By Miriam Raftery
Photos by Dennis Richardson and Miriam Raftery
“Some people look out in the deserts and just see empty space. I see a gold mine there for clean energy.” – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“This is a big land grab—the taking away of our wilderness areas.” – Marion Bowles, protester
December 10, 2010 (McCain Valley) – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Kennedy’s son, Joe Kennedy, were among the leaders on hand for a symbolic groundbreaking of Sunrise Powerlink yesterday at McCain Valley in San Diego’s East County. Inside the Rough Acre Ranch (former training ground for the San Diego Chargers), the Governor praised the project as “an example to the rest of the nation.”
He then helped affix a commemorative plaque to a massive power tower top, or bridge, wider than the audience seating area. The project will have 436 towers. Afterwards, about 200 invited guests celebrated at a lavish luncheon provided by SDG&E and its parent, Sempra Energy.
Outside the gates, however, Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a representative of Congressman Filner, local tribal members and area residents held their own press conference—and painted a far different picture. Those opposed to the project contend that the cumulative effect of massive energy projects in East County is destroying many of our region’s most beautiful public lands, desecrating cultural resources, threatening wildlife, and seriously increasing fire danger for our region.
Inside the gated enclave, Mike Niggli, Chief Operating Officer of SDG&E, called the occasion a “great day.”
Sempra chairman and CEO Jessie Knight, Jr. praised the “collective perseverance of key government officials and regulators” for approving the largest project in the company’s history.
Governor Schwarzenegger said the project is part of keeping a promise he made to voters to avoid rolling blackouts which occurred a decade ago. “We didn’t have enough energy,” he said of the blackouts, which investigations later showed resulted in part due to energy manipulation schemes by ENRON.
The Governor called California’s deserts “a gold mine there for clean energy.” He stressed the importance of getting “power to the people” and portrayed a future vision of the line carrying green energy from massive wind and solar projects, included some for which Sempra has recently signed contracts. “We are building the world’s largest wind farm and solar farm,” Schwarzenegger said, then jested, “This is very important when you have an ego like me.”
California Public Utilities Commissioner Dian Grueneich said the Governor made his priorities clear when he appointed her. “Absolutely he stressed the need for new transmission infrastructure,” she said.
Joe Kennedy, son of the late Robert Kennedy, said the project would help end America’s addiction to oil which he faults for causing the first Gulf War. He now runs a nonprofit energy company that donates some profits to help the poor. “If we keep doing projects like this, we can have the kind of country that we all grew up believing in,” Kennedy said.
Those protesting the project have a dramatically different view.
“SDG&E and the Governor are congratulating themselves for pulling off one of the biggest bought-and-paid-for energy scams in state history,” Supervisor Jacob said. “Today’s deplorable and premature celebration is an insult to the fire-prone communities that will live in constant fear if this line is built. This is not a done deal. State and federal lawsuits are alive and well. We will have our day in court and the truth will come out.”
Donna Tisdale is a member of Protect Our Communities Foundation which has been funding lawsuits in hopes of halting Powerlink and major wind projects. She revealed that in addition to current suits already in the courts, new litigation is planned.
Tisdale worries that the cumulative effect of such projects will be devastating. “This area was home to Native Americans for thousands of years before the Spaniards and homesteaders like George Washington McCain showed up. Their culture and presence is still here in spirit and person,” she said at the press conference. “Many of those irreplaceable resources lay in the path of these unneeded energy projects and will be forever lost. It is all so unnecessary and heartbreaking.”
Tisdale took East County Magazine’s editor and photographers on a private tour of the McCain Valley, including the Carrizo Canyon overlook. Sweeping panoramic 360-degree views of boulder-strewn mountains, desert and the distant Salton Sea would be marred in virtually every direction by gigantic towers hundreds of feet tall if Powerlink and multiple proposed wind projects are built—along with a 10-mile-long solar mirror project planned for another desert region visible from the vantage point.
In addition, the valley was once a corridor for Spanish armies and settlers traveling from Yuma to San Diego. Tisdale revealed that hikers have found archaeological artifacts that still remain in caves throughout the valley, including Spanish swords and nearly intact pottery ollas too heavy to be lugged back up the trail.
Dave Elliot, a member of the Manzanita tribe of Native Americans, said tribal artifacts and remains exist on the site. He said Sempra officials want to remove and repatriate bones found at the surface, but that other human remains still exist at the site. He also said officials remove other artifacts. “We’re not able to get those back,” he said, noting that the tribe does not have a climate-controlled museum. “Cultural items are being destroyed,” he said.
Several speakers complained of corruption in both parties regarding Powerlink. “SDG&E made illegal contributions to Assemblyman Joel Anderson,” Tisdale said, referring to the Republican elected official who later returned some illicit donations and was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Another speaker revealed the role of Dick Cheney in opening up public wilderness lands for large-scale energy projects.
Diane Conklin, another member of Protect Our Communities Foundation, faulted President Barack Obama for appointing former Sempra Energy lobbyist David Hayes as Assistant Secretary of the Interior. “I voted for President Obama. I voted for hope and change,” she said. “What we have is a fix-is-in situation.”
Jacob agreed. “Follow the money,” she said.
Conklin urged Powerlink opponents to “e-mail the White House today. Talk to everyone you know and tell them to e-mail the White House and ask them to stop this line.” (To contact the White House and express your views, click here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.)
Jacob slammed the Governor for reneging on a pledge to fire victims. “The Governor had the nerve to visit this area after the 2007 wildfires and tell residents he was committed to fire safety,” she recalled. “The Governor’s support for this line is hypocritical,” she said,pointing to a map that displays high-fire risk areas along the Powerlink route in red. “That’s at 50 mph winds—and we all know that Santa Ana winds can be twice that.”
Opponents of Powerlink believe power needs for California and San Diego could be met through rooftop solar projects instead of massive industrial-scale projects. They also object to stimulus dollars going to large corporations such as Sempra instead of being invested in rooftop solar. In addition, opponents have expressed skepticism over green energy claims, noting that Southwest Powerlink was built with promises to carry green energy, but that it did not occur. Some believe Sempra plans to import dirty fossil fuel energy from its facilities in Mexico.
Marion Bowles, a Potrero resident, told East County Magazine that Powerlink is slated to go through Hauser Canyon, a wilderness area near her community—and right through the former chicken ranch site in Round Potrero Valley that the town’s residents fought successfully to save from Blackwater, the private military contractor that sought to build a training camp there.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” Bowles said. “Powerlink will go right up to the vernal pools, and soon they want to put up a solar farm, which is not what an agricultural preserve is supposed to be used for. This is a big land grab. They’re taking away our wilderness areas.”
Chief Augie Ghio, head of the San Diego Fire Chiefs Association, said SDG&E has been working with fire chiefs to try and mitigate fire risks. “You’re always concerned, but you have to give them credit,” he told ECM. The company has brought in type-6 vehicles and crews and assigned each to a line crew in high fire risk areas within the urban interface “so they can call 911 right away,” he noted. SDG&E also had its new sky crane “Sunbird” helicopter on display, which Ghio said has already been used to fight two fires in East County.
Inside the groundbreaking (which actually didn’t include turning over any shovels of earth, as final permits have not been issued), SDG&E tried to allay community concerns over what the PUC has described as a severe and unmitigatible fire risk posed by Powerlink to communities along the route.
The Sunbird can be converted from its role in Powerlink construction to drop up to 2,500 gallons of water—far more than the 325 gallons that city and county helicopters can currently handle. Randy Lyle, SDG&E helicopter specialist, said the Sunbird can fly at the maximum end of winds 30-35 mph, though like other aircraft it would be grounded in high Santa Ana winds.
Though it has night-flying capability, Lyle told East County Magazine, “It will not be flown at night because pilots would need to be certified and trained.” He said SDG&E contrats with Erickson Air Crane for pilots, but noted, “These pilots are from all over the U.S. They are not intimately familiar with local hazards.”
Two speakers in the SDG&E ceremony made reference to the protesters. Gary Wyatt, a supervisor for Imperial County, said during the course of the project he has “met some great people, and some people I never want to meet again—and some of them are out there on that road.”
Governor Schwarzenegger, who was greeted by protesters waving signs, honking and chanting as he was driven into the reception, had this to say. “Now I know that there are some people not happy about this, the protesters.” He said he understood concerns for protecting the environment and sensitive species such as bighorn sheep, but said project backers have met with environmentalists to address such concerns. He concluded, “This will reduce greenhouse gases by one million tons a year. You have to think about the bigger picture.”
For many, however, the bigger picture is exactly what disturbs them. With hundreds of large scale energy projects proposed across the nation in National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management areas--public lands only recently opened up for such uses--people who value the natural environment fear that what America will lose is not worth the price.
"Our beautiful open public land would be transformed into an industrial energy zone," said Tisdale, who told those present that she intends to continue to "fight it tooth and nail," then urged, "Please stand with us in that fight."
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