Part III in our exclusive report on the proposed Ocotillo Express Wind project
By Miriam Raftery
March 27, 2012 (Ocotillo)-Ocotillo resident Jim Pelley dreads the prospect of the 456-tall wind turbines that may soon surround his home on three sides-some less than half mile away.
Whirling blades, each weighing many tons, would be placed atop an active earthquake fault area capable of a 7.0 quake or more. Fire danger, groundwater impacts, noise, electromagnetic sound waves and ground current are among the potential perils that he fears.
“Our quiet little town of Ocotillo with pristine views of the mountains will be destroyed forever. In return, we have to deal with the possibility of some serious adverse health effects and many other serious problems,” Pelley, an award-winning photojournalist and engineer, told ECM.
Pelley is not alone. Some 400 residents of this tiny, primarily low-income desert town where people enjoy stargazing and a slower pace of life will see their community drastically altered if Pattern Energy and SDG&E win approval of Ocotillo Wind Express, a 20-acre wind project proposed and 12,500 acres of publicly owned Bureau of Land Management land that shares a 5-mile border with the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
“The stewards of this historical desert have sold us out,” Ocotillo resident Patsy Lowe Nomirage told ECM. “Millions of years ago this area was an ocean. We can walk into this area right out our front door and pick up fossilized sea shells, watch golden eagles and bighorn sheep. All of this will be destroyed and never will return to the pristine desert we call home. A better “green solution? Solar panels on my roof, not wind turbines in my backyard!”
Ima Jean Walker, also an Ocotillo resident, fears adverse health issues the most. “I have vertigo and cannot look at a moving windmill without having balance problems and getting nauseous,” she told ECM. “The shadow flicker is also a huge problem to contend with…Other towns close to wind projects have had severe health issues ands ome people have even had to give up their homes and move because of it.”
She also fears disruption of the desert floor’s crust will increase the probability of valley fever, asthma and lung diseases. Imperial County already suffers extremely high rates of asthma and valley fever, a potentially deadly disease, also has occurred here. It’s spores hide beneath the ground and can be released if soil is disturbed.
Complaints of dust clouds created by Sunrise Powerlink, a small project by comparison, have fallen on dear ears, say residents, who contend the dust lingered long after the workers were gone. View a video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9_d6E0_KoY&feature=youtu.be
Pelley’s family is also concerned about health impacts. “In town my wife suffered for years with migraine headaches to the point where she was having to do Imitrex injections because the pain was so severe,” he said. “Since we moved out here her headaches are far and few between,” he said, adding that she no longer needs injections. “We are afraid that this will change if the wind project goes forward.
His fears are not unfounded. A study in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society published September 30, 2011 is titled Wind turbines make waves: why some residents near wind turbines become ill. http://bst.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/08/24/0270467611417852
According to the article, symptoms frequently reported by people living near wind turbines include headaches, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, depression, cognitive disfunction, chest pain/pressure, join pain, nausea, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), stress, irritability and aggressiveness. The symptoms may be attributed to two causes, according to the article: Pressure sound waves that turbines generate in the form of noise and infrasound, as well as electromagnetic waves in the form of dirty electricity and ground current. Sensitivity varies among individuals, so while such symptoms are common, not everyone in the same area will experience these effects. Health impacts of wind turbines have also been documented in Wind Turbine Syndrome, peer-reviewed study published by John Hopkins University’s Dr. Nina Pierpoint: . http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/wind-turbine-syndrome/
Not everyone is opposed to the project. A press release issued by Pattern Energy on January 12, 2012 announcing that the California Public Utilities Commission had approved a 20-year agreement for SDG&E to purchase 315 megawatts from the Ocotillo wind energy facility stated, “The project has broad support from Imperial Valley local governments, the business community and labor organizations,” according to Gary Wyatt, an Imperial Valley Supervisor.
Tim Kelley, chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, called the project “the kind of economic jumpstart the Imperial Valley needs.”
The area faces 30% unemployment-among the highest in the nation. Thus the international Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569 has also embraced the project in hopes of brining construction jobs to the community.
But should short-term construction jobs outweigh the long-term health of the community and impacts on the environment?
Another danger is wildfire. Google “wind turbine fires” to see numerous photos and videos on the Internet illustrating fires caused by mishaps from wind turbines themselves and the transmission lines, transformers and substations linked to them. In Ocotillo, several homes have recently burned down because firefighters must come from distant areas, residents point out.
Residents also have good cause to worry about Pattern’s safety record.
In December 2010, the Kumeyaay wind farm in Campo experience a catastrophic failure. A witness interviewed by ECM at the time described seeing a blue flash that radiated through the wind farm during a snowstorm. The wind farm went dark and blades broke off, littering the ground and leaking toxic fluids—ultimately forcing replacement of turbines and blades throughout the facility, which was off-line for a full three months.
“After showing Pattern the pictures of the toxic waste [at the Campo facility], Pattern seemed very surprised as if they didn’t know anything about it,” Pelley recalled. “As it turns out, Pattern was involved with this project.”
Indeed, in a request for approval of renewable power purchase with Ocotillo Express LLC sent to the California Public Utilities Commission on March 4, 2011 (when damaged blades still littered the landscape at Campo), SDG&E stated that “successful projects” included the following: “The Pattern Energy team completed development and placed into commercial operation over 21 wind projects through the U.S. since the inception of the RPS program. These projects include the 50 MW Kumeyaay Wind Project in San Diego.”
Some residents fear the project could ultimately be abandoned, as has occurred at wind farms in some other places, including Hawaii, where rusting hulks were left behind as unmaintained public menaces. If the project is built, opponents hope to see hefty deposits required of the project applicant to cover costs of removal if the facility is abandoned.
One of the most serious concerns is earthquake safety. Ocotillo is located in one of the most seismically active areas in California and virtually on top of the Elsinore fault. A newly discovered fault lies just a few miles south of the project –and the area has been rocked by moderate quakes as recently as a 3.1 quake today. During the 2010 Easter earthquake in Mexico and major aftershocks, Ocotillo residents reported major shaking that sent furniture toppling in their homes.
Ocotillo is just 17 miles from Seeley. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the probability of a major quake striking with 31 miles of Seeley within the next 50 years is 99.8% for a 5.0 or higher on the Richter scale, 86% for a 6.0 or higher, and 23% for a 7.0 earthquake or stronger.
Pelley, an engineer, said he was disturbed to learn that the 456 foot-tall turbines(45 stories) are proposed to be mounted in sand, secured only eight feet deep.
East County Magazine has asked Pattern Energy for an interview for this series. Thus far Pattern has not responded. Among other questions, we wanted to ask Pattern if its turbines have ever undergone seismic testing.
Our research has found only two significant links regarding seismic testing on wind turbines. In February 2010, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a shake table test on an 82-foot tall turbine was slated to take place at the University of California, San Diego. http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2010/feb/07/wind-turbine-getting-seismic-shakedown/ . Shortly after that test, ECM repeatedly contacted the lead researcher to request results back in 2010. We requested results again this week for our current story. We have never received a response. Some results were later published here: http://cwec.ucdavis.edu/forum2010/proceedings2/Elgamal_CWEC2010.pdf However it’s unclear whether turbines made by Pattern were ever tested, or whether turbines the same height were tested, or whether turbines tested passed tests simulating earthquakes as those that are possible in the Ocotillo area.
ECM contacted Stephen Mahir, director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering and Research Center (PEER) operated by the University of California, Berkeley, regarding earthquake risks in Ocotillo. The project site is sand atop an aquifer. Thus Mahir observed, “It’s the liquefaction that would also be an issue here…If there’s a high water table, soil can basically turn into a fluid during an earthquake and then lose strength.”
Prominent San Diego ecological designer Jim Bell also voiced concerns about the terrain turning to “mush” during an earthquake due to liquefaction. But he added, “throwing blades is a bigger danger.” When a turbine throws off a multi-ton blade, it usually occurs during high winds of 40-50 mph, Bell noted. “Who knows how far it could go? If one of those big blades gets thrown a half mile away it could go right through a house and kill people.”
Bell also questioned Pattern’s assertion that the project can product 315 MWh and power 130,000 homes, since project files indicate average wind speeds of just 10.7 miles per hour at the site for 50% of the time, based on measurements taken at a 10-meter height. The project also relies on data from Boulevard (around 3,000 feet higher in elevation and 10 miles away) where wind speeds aerage just 8.8 to 9.1 miles per hour 53 % of the time.
According to Bell and other sources, a good “rule of thumb” for viability of commercial wind power is that the wind must blow a minimum average of 14 mph 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. “If the measurement at 30 meters above the ground averages 10 mph and only 50% of the time, the whole project is a taxpayer boondoggle,” he concludes. “Also, since the measure is 30 meters above the ground, the project’s proponents are guessing the amount of wind at 100 meters, since they do not have a real measurement for the tower elevation.”
Another serious concern for residents is potential destruction of their sole-source aquifer, a federally protected resource.
“Our aquifer is a precious aquifer. No water, no town. Without it we would not exist,” said Parke Ewing, an Ocotillo resident. In an email sent to other concerned citizens, Ewing said that two wells were recently dug into the aquifer by U.S. Gypsum.
Pelley said some local water authorities were not informed about the drilling and that a USG representative told him the drilling was for testing only and were 800 feet deep. He fears contamination of the groundwater supply.
Residents have also reported numerous trucks, some with paving equipment, in the vicinity and some have voiced concerns that Pattern could be attempting to start roadwork, such as repairing an old gravel quarry road, before the project is approved. Pelley said when he began photographing one of the trucks, the driver took off.
“Ocotillo is a small, low-income community and can’t afford to fight big corporations and government and they have totally ignored all of our concerns, ramming this project down our throat,” said Pelley. That sentiment has been echoed in nearby Boulevard and Jacumba, other low-income rural towns near the Tule Wind farm just approved by the federal government, also on scenic BLM land.
Residents in Ocotillo further have complained that the process has been unfair and made meaningful input difficult, if not impossible.
“The EIR/EIS document is seven books—approximately 24 feet tall stacked up, and it weighs about 28 pounds,” said Pelley. “They gave us less than 30 days to go through them and we are finding all kinds of alarming issues, mistakes, and misleading information.” A request for a time extension for review has not been granted, he added.
Back in August 2011, residents were stunned to attend a public meeting held by the BLM on the project, only to learn they were prohibited from speaking or making any public comments. In a story titled BLM clamps down on public comments at renewable energy meetings, KCET reported that a new BLM policy allows only written comments on small cards with room only for about 75 words: http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/blm-clamps-down-on-public-comment.html .
The article indicated that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has also barred federal employees from making any negative statements regarding renewable energy projects on public lands, even if such statements would fall within their job descriptions.
“It’s like they’re trying to suppress public comment,” Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, told the Imperial Valley Press.
Many residents of Ocotillo, and other local towns impacted by industrial-scale wind projects, agree.
If the government succeeds in squelching public comment here and muzzling public officials, the same thing could happen across America. Could an industrial wind development be coming next to your hometown?
“Something is very wrong when the powers that be are willing to disregard the laws of the land, laws that have come down to us from a government that used to value the preservation of its vast areas of national parks and open land,” concluded Stephanie Mood of San Diego, who owns land and has a trailer in Ocotillo. “This headlong rush to the `alternative’ and `green’ energy sources is beginning to look like a hoax whose corporate purpose is to devour every possible resource left on this beautiful planet.”
The residents of Ocotillo have launched a “say no to the Ocotillo wind energy facility project” petition. “Protect our health, our land and our history,” the petition urges. “Developing alternatives to fossil fules is essential to the survival of our species. But this is the wrong project in the wrong place.”
If you agree, you can sign the petition at http://www.change.org/petitions/say-no-to-the-ocotillo-wind-energy-facility-project