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By Miriam Raftery

August 30, 2013 (Ocotillo) -- Thursday’s storm brought an unwanted surprise to residents of Ocotillo, where floodwaters swept through the desert town carrying a white,  foamy sludge. You can see a video of the sludge flood on our website at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cqtr8mKDbEo&feature=youtu.be

East County Magazine photographer Jim Pelley lives in Ocotillo.  He and other residents say that they have never seen the white foamy sludge before the Ocotillo Wind Energy facility was built.

“What is it?” he asked.  “What effect will it have on our sole source aquifer?” The underground aquifer provides the town’s only source of drinking water.  Pelley also wants to know if the contaminated water will be harmful to animals.  “It has been so dry out here, I’m sure all of the wildlife is very thirsty and will be drinking this water.”

Ocotillo is located in Imperial County, just over the San Diego County line.  But the impacts of a wind project there are of concern here in East County, with a similar wind project proposed in McCain Valley on federal public lands.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In July of 2012, just over a year ago during the project’s construction, a flash flood washed a similar-looking white foam through the town. It coated streets and yards where children play.  See our prior story on this here:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10510

Officials initially balked at disclosing what the substance was and claimed this was "natural alkalinity." But after East County Magazine advised that we would pay for testing if officials didn’t turn over this information, an Imperial County public health official finally informed us that the substance was a chemical used for dust suppression by the wind project developer.

That substance is flammable when it dries out. That fact struck fear in the hearts of residents during a wildfire that engulfed mountains behind Ocotillo in July of last year, days after the July 2012 flood, with white, flammable chemical residue still on the ground dangerously close to homes. 

No cleanup was ever ordered.

Could Thursday’s flood of white foam be a dust suppression chemical reappearing in waterways, one year later?  Or is it something else?

One troubling possibility is that the substance found this week could be run-off of herbicides sprayed shortly before the storm.  The  herbicide was approved by the Bureau of Land Management to suppress non-native mustard weeds brought in by vehicles at Pattern Energy’s wind project. Spraying of the neurotoxic herbicide was done over the objections of Ocotillo residents.  Is that herbicide now polluting public waterways?

Still another possibility is that two massive dust storms that struck Ocotillo last week may have blown in other contaminants from Arizona, where the storms originated, or from contaminated areas east of Ocotillo, such as the highly polluted Salton Sea.

An East County Magazine investigation has found an apparent link between the resurgence of Dust Bowl-era scale dust storms and construction of industrial-scale wind projects and desert solar projects across the Southwest. Scraping bare the desert soil on thousands, even millions of acres collectively for these projects destroys topsoil, just as industrial-scale agriculture destroyed topsoil in the 1930s, causing the dust storms that turned the Midwest into a Dust Bowl that forced millions of people to move away from their homes. Today’s Dust Storms also pose a new hazard, releasing deadly Valley Fever spores trapped beneath desert soils. Valley Fever has risen to epidemic proportions in Arizona and California, the Centers for Disease Control reports.

Residents near wind farms face a no-win situation, confronted with dust as well dust storms harmful to human health as well as pollution from chemicals used by wind energy developers to control the dust. 

Pelley gathered up a gallon of the mysterious white sludge, which resembles snow blanketing the desert  after  Thursday’s flood.  He turned it over to an environmental official in Imperial County, who said he will send it out for testing and analysis.

Wind energy has been touted as “green” and renewable. But the Ocotillo wind project has failed even to produce the wind energy levels that it promised the federal government to win approval.

Beleaguered residents in Ocotillo contend that the only thing “green” about this wind project is the taxpayers’ money pocketed by the developer in the form of wind energy subsidies.

For residents across the nation who live close to places where wind projects or desert solar projects are proposed, as well as for all who use public lands or care about wildlife in these formerly protected areas, this week's dust storms and chemical flooding raise serious questions about the hidden costs of pollution related to these so-called "green" energy projects. 



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     The list of infuriating

     The list of infuriating ironies associated with this project (and countless others just like it, scattered across the land!) continues to grow. But it's really no surprise when one assumes that these "farms" were never really intended to work, produce adequate power, or be "green." They were made primarily to score political points; to be, if nothing else, proof-positive of the good intentions that some have about fixing problems like climate change. How much more wilderness will be destroyed, I wonder, before they're stopped.