Part IV in our series on the Ocotillo Express Wind project, which would feed electricity into SDG&E's Sunrise Powerlink bound for San Diego.
By Miriam Raftery
“Jobs are temporary but the destruction of our desert is forever. All of this culture and history will be lost…all in the name of greed.” – Linda Ewing, Ocotillo
“This is an economically important project for our community.”—Katie Figari, Chief Executive Officer, Brawley Chamber of Commerce
March 29, 2012 (Ocotillo) – A conditional use permit, height variances and mitigation were approved by an 8-1 vote yesterday at the Imperial Valley Planning Commission meeting.
Planners, wooed by the applicant’s estimate that $150 million in tax revenues will flow into county coffers over the project’s 30-year-life, along with a projected 350 construction jobs and at most 20 permanent jobs, opted to ignore the very grave concerns voiced by tribal leaders, environmentalists, health workers and many residents. Those concerns include dangerous and destructive potential of the project, as well as federal fast-tracking that has trampled long-held rights of residents and tribes.
Pattern Energy, the applicant, gave a presentation of the project indicating it had reduced the number of turbines from 193 to 155 and finally, 112. The 12,500 site on federal Bureau of Land Management property would power 125,000 homes and generate 265 MW of power, according to Pattern’s presentation. Each wind turbine would tower 456 feet tall, with blades each measuring many tons.
Pattern aims to have most construction done by year’s end on the project, a half-billion dollar investment paid for largely with federal subsidies that expire December 31. “Opponents realize that delay can kill a project,” said Glenn Hodges, Pattern Energy spokesman.
No organized proposals were allowed by project opponents, including tribes and an engineer who requested in advance to show a slideshow questioning Pattern’s wind generation conclusions, but was prohibited from any presentation longer than three minutes.
Dave Gaddis cast the sole “no” vote, peppering representatives from Pattern Energy, the project applicant, with questions over noise and safety issues.
“Your position is that these turbines across the desert will not impact property values—even though these people’s entire reason for living there is to have a view of the desert? That’s ludicrous,” Gaddis said.
Hodges replied, “I think wind turbines are attractive.”
Gasps and derisive laughs rippled through the crowd, prompting the chairman to ask the crowd to “keep it down.”
Gaddis also questioned Pattern’s contention that noise levels would generally be inaudible except under certain atmospheric conditions. “It looks to me like under any circumstances you’re going to hear this all over Ocotillo,” he said to a consultant from Aspen Environmental, the same consultant hired for the Sunrise Powerlink. An audience member shouted, “No wind turbines, no additional noise!”
The outspoken planner also voiced skepticism over Pattern’s contentions regarding paleontology sites. “They found no fossils in this entire area – in all that 12,500 acres?” Nothing in this entire area was culturally sensitive that you can ascertain?” asked Gaddis, knowing the area is a former ocean where residents regularly scoop up fossilized seashells and that a coalition of Native American tribes contends that documented evidence of hundreds of cultural resource sites were inexplicably omitted from the final project Environmental Impact Report .
Pattern contends that it will avoid cultural resource sites, but tribes content that testing has been woefully inadequate. “A huge amount of cultural resources there will be lost…sites they didn’t tell you about in the E.I.R. and E.S. They weren’t truthful,” said Larry Sutton, a cultural monitor from Viejas.
Pattern blatantly misrepresented the level of opposition by tribes, falsely stating that less than half of Kumeyaay tribes oppose the project. A resolution by the southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which represents 19 tribes, was presented voicing opposition to the Ocotillo wind project.
“It's interesting that they brought it up yesterday AFTER public comments were no longer allowed AND after the Planning Commission gave Pattern the advantage of speaking, unchallenged, at the end,” Robert Scheid, Viejas spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to ECM. “Even after they were the only ones allowed to give an uninterrupted presentation to the Commission. This resolution makes it clear that Pattern is, once again, misrepresenting key facts. But then, that's been their pattern (pun intended) all along.”
A coalition of tribes and the California Native American Heritage Commission requested a continuance, but their requests were ignored.
Courtney Coyle, an attorney for Viejas, said Viejas only received key documents yesterday morning and had no time to respond. “This is not a transparent or good faith effort,” she told planners.
Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico, leaders and representatives of numerous tribes including the Quechan and Cocopah all spoke in opposition of the project and further, strongly suggested that legal action will ensue to protect tribal rights that the Indians believe have been broken.
Alan Hatcher with Terra Peninsular asked why no comment had been allowed by Anza Borrego State Park and cited allegations by former Superintendent Mark Jorgensen that a gag order has stifled park staff from voicing concerns.
An ECM article published yesterday raised allegations by Jorgensen that the Governor’s office ordered State Parks not to submit a comment critical of the project, and none was submitted for the final EIR. The Governor’s office has denied that, however multiple other sources including tribal environmental representatives as well as a local planner confirm that they, too, were told that park employees had been muzzled.
Natalie McCue from Pattern presented a “fatal flaw analysis” which she said found no land use conflicts, no active eagle nests, and no critical habitat for endangered or threatened species. She said Pattern conducted sound tests of 60-80 decibels on bighorn sheep on an “island” or median between north and southbound lanes of I-8 and that “the sheep are thriving quite well.”
Those contentions are, simply put, not true.
Comments submitted by the State of California’s Dept. of Fish and Game states that “The Department disagrees with the statement that the site is unoccupied [by Peninsular Bighorn sheep] and notes that “sheep sign were documented throughout the proposed project site” and voiced concerns that the site connects habitat areas for the sheep. Yesterday, ECM published photos of 18 bighorn sheep reportedly photographed standing on the project boundary.
Moreover the California Fish & Game Department comments state that “There are two active eagle territories in the project site and site surveys detected 22 eagles within the project site.”
Donna Tisdale, chair of Boulevard’s planning group, said she hears from residents who also voice complaints about that wind farm. “Here we are talking about blood money,” she said of the Ocotillo project.
Tisdale also said that a prior wind project in her area, Buckeye, once sent a blade flying more than a mile in the area.
She further indicated that neighbors of the Kumeyaay wind farm in Campo --a Pattern project--have complained of blade flicker that not even blackout blinds fully solved the problem.
Compelling testimony was offered by Manzanita tribal consultant Jeff Riolo. “We ourselves are economically disadvantaged. Over 50% of our people are unemployed. We favor jobs,” he said, then added that siting must be appropriate and proper stewardship of public lands is important. He opposes this project, then spoke compellingly of what it is like living near the existing wind farm in Campo.
“We have suffered,” he said. “Our children have higher attention deficit disorder rates.” He also cited sleep disorders, cancer and other conditions some believe are related.
Pattern listed the Kumeyaay wind farm at Campo as among its projects built. The site experienced a catastrophic failure in December 2009, when numerous blades and portions of blades flew off, necessitating replacement of virtually all turbines and blades, with debris documented still on the ground a year later.
A Pattern representative claimed the company now uses a different company for blade production.
ECM editor Miriam Raftery asked planners if the applicant has provided documentation of seismic safety testing. She indicated that the area has an 89% chance of a 6.0 quake or higher and a 23% chance of a 7.0 quake or higher within 50 miles in the next 50 years and moreover, that an expert from the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) confirmed that Ocotillo, an area of sand over an aquifer, is capable of liquefaction (soil turning liquid) during a major quake. Pattern offered no explanation or response.
Anita Nicklen exposed serious health issues in the Imperial Valley that could be worsened by construction dust from the project. She said that “22% of the children here have asthma” and further, warned that disturbing the desert soil could release deadly Valley Fever spores.
“The CDC says the median duration of diagnosed cases is four months,” she warned. “New cases in Imperial Valley have occurred since the start of Sunrise Powerlink and more can be expected with the wind farm,” a much larger-scale project locally, she said. “Air quality is already so bad; why do we want to add more?”
Pattern cited studies it claimed have concluded there no health impacts from living near wind turbines, citing research in Ontario among others. But residents provided documents showing serious health effects documented in scientific literature, with impacts ranging from headaches to heart problems such as Vibraacoustic Disease and Wind Turbine Syndrome, articles in scientific journals such as this one, and a warning from a global activist group claiming health problems among people living near wind turbines worldwide is pandemic.
Patterns' statements on jobs also came into serious questions.
Despite earlier claims made by Pattern to provide 20 or 30 permanent jobs, when a planner grilled Hodges on how many local people Pattern would guarantee it would employee, Hodges waffled. He refused to assure at least 10 local jobs, and in the end, confirmed just exactly how many permanent local jobs he would guarantee: one! View a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L05h7XpxMdE&feature=youtu.be
Residents of Ocotillo, a low-income community, gave emotional testimony, nearly all in opposition to the project.
“There are 400 people there whose lives will be destroyed, said Cheryl Pelley, who lives less than a half-mile from the project site. She and her husband, ECM photographer Jim Pelley, live less than a half mile from the proposed project.
Jim Pelley, an engineer, wanted to present a 45-slide Powerpoint presentation showing calculations he made casting skepticism on Pattern's claims regarding wind production from the site, but was restricted to just a three-minute presentation.
“I’m a Viet Nam veteran. I moved out here for peace and quiet,” said Parke Ewing, whose home will be surrounded on three sides by turbines.
Among the most impassioned pleas came from Ocotillo resident Denee Wooley, who brought her two young children and broke down in tears while testifying. “The animals that we love will be in danger. Birds and bats can be killed. Valley Fever and Wind Turbine Syndrome—that sounds scary. Will we be able to sleep at night? Will we have nightmares?” she asked. Wooley said her youngest child has tubes in her ears from ear infections. “Will the constant hum from the wind turbines affect her the most? I hope not,” she said.
Wooley read planners a quote from children’s author Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It’s not.”
Edie Harmon of Ocotillo noted that county zoning ordinances and maps designate the land as open space for recreation or preservation.
“Neither has any authority for privately owned industrial-scale wind,” she said.
An elderly woman from Ocotillo rose to testify that the site is in a flood zone with portions designated as flood hazard areas recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). She recalled a long-ago flood in which “four to six feet of water destroyed most of the town…There was another flood in the late 80s or 90s; I had two to three feet of water in my home,” she said. “They’re going to disturb the area so much, it will put water in other places.”
The meeting opened with a lengthy presentation by Pattern Energy, followed by a parade of speakers in support of the project. Next, opponents were allowed to speak. The meeting concluded with additional supporters, making many question why the process appeared to be organized to give supporters the first and last word while denying any organized presentation by groups opposed.
“I’ve never had so many desperate and well qualified people looking for jobs,” supporter Ryan Dickerson said of a jobs fair hosted by Pattern.
“This is an economically important project for our community.”—Katie Figari, Chief Executive Officer of the Chamber of Commerce in Brawley, a community whose residents are far from the wind project site.
Labor representatives also voiced support, as did members of community groups that have taken money from Pattern Energy or been promised funds for community projects as part of a mitigation agreement for the project. Other mitigation includes restoring habitat off site by removing tamarisk in the Carrizo area, scholarships for Native American children, and burying powerlines to lessen visual impact.
Richard Hamilton, an Ocotillo resident, said he favored the site for a “selfish reason” to provide his kids a “better world”, then offered contemptuous remarks that offended Native Americans present and drew a rebuke from at least one planner when Hamilton referred to Indians as people who “went out and raped and pillaged the land.”
Preston Arrowweed, a Quechan tribal member, later responded to the insult by stating, “I heard that nasty remark…We lived in peace,” then he asked, citing tribal members’ respect for nature. Then he asked the planners, “If you have the right to destroy the balance of nature, then tell me.”
Toward the end of the meeting, numerous names were called of people who filled out speaker cards, yet left without speaking. Ocotillo resident Linda Ewing offered this explanation.
“I received several phone calls and emails from a lot of the people I do business with in El Centro,” she told ECM and others in an email this morning. “They are the names called that didn't speak. They said they couldn't after they heard how this was going to affect us and our families. They said it personalized it and they didn't want their name associated with this kind of insensitivity for families.”
Terry Weiner with the Desert Protective Council said that “the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers[ could have lots more jobs in installation of rooftop solar…We are subsidizing large companies to make money of our public lands.” Instead, she and others implored, “We want that money to come to our area for rooftop solar.”
She said the Desert Protective Council said her group is seeking donations in hopes of raising the $650 necessary to appeal the motion within 10 days to the Imperial Valley Board of Supervisors.
Opponents strongly condemned the new fast-track project being pushed forward by the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and the State of California—all of which have reportedly instructed employees to push through renewable energy projects on public lands at all costs and with what many contend is reckless disregard to the many negative consequences.
“ In the end, “ Weiner concluded, “money spoke louder than environmental justice for a rural residential community and the value of protecting 20 square miles of functioning desert habitat belonging to the American people.”
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