Story by Miriam Raftery; photos by Jim Pelley and Parke Ewing
"I feel like we are living in a third world country." -- Jim Pelley, Ocotillo resident and ECM photographer
August 23, 2012 (Ocotillo) – Workers have begun constructing the first of 112 industrial wind turbines near the small town of Ocotillo on federal Bureau of Land Management property adjacent to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
But as towering turbines eclipse mountains and desert skies, dust released from scraping desert soils bare and excavating massive turbine foundations have residents complaining that their community has been turned into a “dust bowl” while government officials turn a blind eye to conditions that pose hazards to their health.
“I feel like we are living in a third world country,” Jim Pelley, an engineer who lives in Ocotillo, stated in an e-mail to fellow residents and concerned friends.
Residents began complaining in mid-May immediately after construction began at the project by Blattner Energy and Pattern Energy. On June 13, ECM ran a story on the dust issues. But the dust problems continue—and have gotten even worse. Numerous other videos document frequent dust blowing, such as this video shot on July 13, a month later.
The website Save Ocotillo submitted a shocking new video , which shows workers toiling amid a dust storm generated by the project—dust that is regularly engulfing Ocotillo, a community that already suffered one of the state’s highest asthma rates.
A description on the Save Ocotillo YouTube site also points up apparent safety hazards for workers: “No cones in the street, no one directing traffic, hard hats blowing off, workers and equipment operators can't see holding their hands over their eyes, workers walking in front of moving equipment, worker using water from his water bottle to wet the steel drum roller with feet dangerously close to rotating steel drum roller. Workers are aggressively motioned to keep working by possible supervisor.”
Area residents have indicated that workers in the videos are non-union, though ECM has been unable to confirm that.
ECM forwarded the disturbing video to the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, which in turn sent it to Jennifer Badgely, organizer/political director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 569, which represents electrical workers at wind projects. We also forwarded two additional videos showing actions of questionable safety, including workers pushing heavy equipment over a railroad track and another showing a worker crawling under heavy equipment stuck in sand. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjfxxHsmQ6I, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO9Z3nvA3vw
Badgely declined to review the videos of the workers, adding, “We will not make any comment on this specific project for your story at this time.”
Lorena Gonzales, secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council, noted that construction is one of the most dangerous industries, adding, “It’s important that workers in that industry have the right to be represented by a union to make sure health and safety rules are being followed and that employees are being fairly compensated for performing such challenging work with such great skill.”
Pattern will not comment on complaints about its project. The company was twice fined for violating dust mitigation requirements. But in recent weeks, the dust problems have intensified with round-the-clock construction and more and more of the desert disturbed. Residents have shown through videos that dust violations are ongoing, with water trucks often absent. They complain of a cat-and-mouse game in which the builder summons water trucks when monitors are spotted approaching the site.
Yet no more fines have been issued and no regulator will shut the project down. The Air Pollution Control District insists it can’t rely on outside videos, and can’t levy fines unless its monitors are present when a violation occurs. Nothing has been done to help abate the dust or other problems despite numerous inquiries by residents to local, state and federal agencies as well as Ocotillo’s Supervisor.
Congressman Filner has agreed to meet with concerned citizens later this month and sent a representative to a tribal gathering to mourn the loss of Native American ancestors, since requests by many tribes to protect sacred lands, cultural resources and their ancestors’ burial sites have also been largely ignored by the Bureau of Land Management.
Five lawsuits have been filed by residents, environmental groups and tribes seeking to halt the project. Two hearings are set in upcoming weeks in federal court, both seeking temporary restraining orders, after languishing in court for weeks while the construction devastation continues on a fast-tracked pace.
But at the rapid pace of construction, any action may be too little, too late.
This week, construction of the first tower, roughly 500-feet tall, has begun. The first turbine blades have been trucked in, dwarfing the mountain scenery that attracted people to this area. When Pelley bought his home, he says a real estate agent assured him the view would be protected “forever” since his house sits in the middle of state and federal public lands that were supposed to be preserved for posterity.
Each turbine blade span will be approximately the size of a football field. Each turbine foundation required excavating a hole roughly 238 feet across.
Two residents, Parke Ewing and Pelley, have been subjected to floodlights from all-night construction shining into their homes in the middle of the night. Numerous complaints have failed to resolve the problem. Pattern’s subcontractors have been ordered to divert the light, yet recent photos sent by Pelley appear to show the nuisance continuing to disturb the once-peaceful nights at his home. There is also the noise of massive trenching and bulldozing, cranes, rollers, and other heavy equipment.
The developer even managed to divert natural drainage in this federally designated flood plane, flooding the town with a white chemical used for dust suppression. Flammable white residue washed over lawns where children play, streets, and covered vast tracts of desert downstream from the project.
After the storm, sludge floated in flooded turbine holes above the town's aquifer, the sole source of drinking water.
Nor has Pattern ever addressed serious seismic safety issued raised by ECM regarding a project sitting atop an active earthquake fault on sand, not bedrock, over water. Experts have said this site is capable of liquefaction.
Fed-up residents staged a “Stand in the Sand” event August 11 to protest these and other problems; many agreed to interviews with ECM and shared their stories on camera: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10725 One man said the developer has turned Ocotillo into a “Dust Bowl” akin to the one that prompted massive human migration as people were forced to abandon their homes in the 1930s due to drought and overfarming stripping off topsoil. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl
There is also fire danger. Numerous fires, including several wildfires, have been caused by wind turbines exploding due to malfunctions or lightning strikes, since they also serve as lightning rods due to extreme height. Earlier this month, a lightning-sparked wildfire scorched thousands of acres, including mountains above the Ocotillo wind site.
At least one Ocotillo family has put their home on the market. Some here worry that property values will be harmed, as has happened in other areas where drops of as much as 40% have occurred when a wind energy projects moves into the neighborhood.
They also decry destruction of the ocotillo forest for which Ocotillo was named, the crushing of burrowing owl and kit fox burrows, and take permits issued by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar allowing the killing of up to 10 endangered Peninsular Bighorn ewes and lambs. They fear health problems linked to infrasound and stray voltage at wind projects around the world, including the Kumeyaay wind project in Campo, also built by Pattern.
Sixty members of the Manzanita Indian tribe there are ill and have been accepted into a University of California health study; an epidemiologist measured stray voltage/ground current in nearby homes at 1,000 times normal.
In Imperial Valley, deadly Valley Fever spores lie dormant beneath the desert crust--as long as it's not disturbed. Ocotillo residents fear that they or their children may contract the often fatal disease.
“Who is going to be responsible for our medical bills for respiratory related issues resulting from this project?” Pelley asked in an email to his Supervisor in Imperial County, Jack Terrazas sent today.
He advised Terrazas that a “haze of dust” is “getting worse each day” and that roads are not being watered down as promised. “Prior to the project starting, we [had] never seen dust due to all the vegetation that was in Ocotillo,” he concluded. But now that over 300 acres of the desert have been stripped of vegetation---still only a fraction of the total project to be built, the problems continue to get worse.
Pattern Energy, which was founded by the Carlisle Group, has flatly refused to discuss any issues at its construction site. In an announcement of its community benefits program back in April, however, a press release from Pattern Energy claimed that "Pattern is strongly committed to promoting enviornmental stewardship and is dedicated to working closely with landowners and communiteis to create premier renewable energy projects."
This wind project, like many across the nation, are being pushed forward by the federal government and funded largely through taxpayer-backed subsidies in a quest to address global climate change. But this project has minimal wind speeds and is at best a marginal wind resource area, by Pattern's own calculations.
Critics have asked how much fossil fuel was burned to manufacture the turbines, blades and other parts, transport them via ship, rail and truck to the site, fuel the vehicles destroying the desert, build and construct powerlines to connect the project to populated areas. They also note that each turbine contains hundreds of gallons of lubricating oil and that SDG&E now says a gas-fired peaker power plant--using fossil fuels--needs to be built near Mission Trails Regional Park for when the wind doesn't blow in Ocotillo. Clearcutting the desert also removes vegetation that absorbed carbon dioxide emissions.
Is the project really reducing greenhouse gas emissions--or could it be making the problem worse? No one knows.
Residents are frustrated that seemingly all of their concerns have fallen on deaf ears in a new federal fast-tracking process for renewable energy projects—though those living here view this project as anything but green.
Ocotillo is but one of many communities across America faced with such situations. The Bureau of Land Management has earmarked 370 million acres of its publicly owned lands as prime for industrial energy development including geothermal/fracking, wind energy, solar and biomass production—an area twice the size of Texas: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy/renewable_energy.html .
The U.S. Interior Department’s Secretary General recently issued a report sharply critical of the BLM for failing to adequately monitor massive energy projects being built on our public lands: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10145
Ocotillo was not included, since the report was written before the devastation here began. But Ocotillo could serve as a case study of what’s wrong with the system—and shows that despite the scathing report, nothing has been done to remedy the problems raised.
Residents voice extreme frustration. Some blame the Obama administration for fast-tracking energy projects without regard for the consequences. Others bemoan the fact that Republicans offer no better alternative; Mitt Romney has said he would open National Parks for energy projects such as oil and fracking; a Republican bill in Congress proposes to go even further, selling off some National Parks to private corporations.
Won't any political leaders in Washington stand up for the protection of public lands? Increasingly, people witnessing the destruction of places long preserved for the public enjoyment are asking that question.
“The decision for this project to go in was decided long before the meetings we attended,” concluded Pelley, who is deeply disillusioned with both the government and judicial systems.
The long-time desert denizen concluded, “I thought we lived in America and had a right to a fair fight against this project.”