By Miriam Raftery
“The threat of acquiring the respiratory illness extends to residents living near expansive construction sites. That risk is rising given the scope of the renewable energy boom centered in the state.” – Los Angeles Times
May 6, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) – Valley Fever has sickened 28 workers at two large-scale solar facilities under construction in San Luis Obispo County, the Los Angeles Times reported on April 30. The disease is contracted by breathing in fungal spores released when desert soils are disturbed.
The finding is the latest in a series of disturbing reports on epidemic Valley Fever conditions in California and across the Southwest. With numerous large-scale solar projects and wind projects proposed for East County that would scrape bare thousands of acres of high desert terrain, public health concerns over the prospect of exposing residents to Valley Fever are growing. Since wind-blown spores can carry 75 miles or more, residents across San Diego County could be at risk of the potentially deadly disease.
After the 2007 wildfires, for example, Valley Fever cases popped up even in areas far from previous known cases, such as in Chula Vista. Physicians believed that wind-blown spores released by the wildfire were carried on Santa Ana winds westward.
“The threat of acquiring the respiratory illness extends to residents living near expansive construction sites. That risk is rising given the scope of the renewable energy boom centered in the state,” the Los Angeles Times stated.
In California, 1,451 people have died from Valley Fever between 1990 and 2008, accounting for nearly half of all deaths nationwide. Valley Fever cases have skyrocketed 90% across the southwest from 1998 to 2011 and rose 71% in California from 2001 to 2011.
ECM has documented the extreme Dust Bowl-like conditions to which workers and residents were exposed during construction of the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility.
Ocotillo resident Jim Pelley has stated, “I feel like I’m living in a third world country.” He shot this video to demonstrate the extreme dust conditions at the project site, which surrounds his home on three sides: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10795 . (Photo, right)
After construction was completed, Pelley shot this infrared video to show high particulate levels illustrating permanent air pollution. “This is what we’re breathing now when we come outside,” he said, adding that even inside homes there is dust blowing into homes. On windy days, the wind turbines themselves blow sand and dust perpetuating the problem.
More than 100 complaints were filed by residents with their local air pollution control district over dust from 42 miles of access roads and the turbine pad excavations (photo, left, shows a single wind turbine foundation excavation).
Yet project monitors, paid for by the developer, never listed a single violation.
Not surprisingly, Imperial County, where the Ocotillo project and several large solar projects are located, recently ranked an “F” for the number of days that exceeded particulate matter standards, according to the American Lung Association’s 2013 report.
This week, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched an investigation into deaths of 36 prisoners from Valley Fever in two central California prisons. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson Wednesday accused the state of California of an “anemic response” to the crisis. She has ordered the relocation of prisoners at highest risk for the disease, including African Americans who have a 90% increased risk of Valley Fever, Latino inmates with a 30% increased risk and inmates older than 55 with a 60% increased risk.
Millions of acres across the southwest are targeted for large-scale solar and wind development and many projects have already been built in desert areas.
The Desert Protective Council filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the Ocotillo wind project. Richard Drury, representing the Laborers’ International Union of North America local 1184, warned that his union’s members would be negatively impacted along with people living near the site. “But their most serious claim is that the project poses unique health risks to laborers,” Drury stated in May 2012. “There is a risk of Valley Fever, which is caused by soil bacteria that is inhaled when the soil is stirred up.”
Government response to complaints has been inadequate, to be charitable. At a recent public hearing for a proposed solar project near Death Valley National Park, residents asked state officials what steps would be taken to protect them and their families during construction. The response? Buy dust masks and stock up on anti-fungal medication.
Anti-fungal medicines are not safe for everyone, however, and can cause serious harm including liver damage.
Valley Fever, though fatal only a small percentage of the time, can be debilitating causing severe respiratory problems such as pneumonia as well as joint pain, skin rashes, and other symptoms.
In San Diego County, 150 cases of Valley Fever were diagnosed in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. But the CDC estimates for every case reported, there could be ten more left unreported due in part to physicians' unfamiliarity with the illness as well as differences in reporting requirements in different counties and states. The CDC last month issued a bulletin with guidelines for physicians.
Despite these hazards as well as risks associated with infrasound, noise and stray voltage from wind turbines, San Diego's top health official, Wilma Wooten, issued a report claiming there is no evidence of any increased health risk from wind turbines.
A poster named Mojave Desert Dweller provided this description on the L.A. Times website of what life is like for those living near big wind and solar projects.
“When a wind or solar company starts construction here, they blade the whole far at the same time, even if it will be months before installation,” the poster wrote, a sentiment now being voiced by more and more neighbors of large-scale renewable projects. “Our spring winds this year have created brown out conditions. If you can see the air, you definitely shouldn’t be breathing it.”