BROKEN PROMISES: OCOTILLO WIND PROJECT WINS APPROVAL DESPITE OUTCRY FROM TRIBES, RESIDENTS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS
By Miriam Raftery
April 26, 2012 (Ocotillo) – A former firefighter who has parachuted into raging wildfires, Viejas Community Relations Director Charlie Brown (photo, left above) has no shortage of courage. But he choked back tears as he spoke about what Ocotillo and its ancient geoglyphs means to him and other tribes that have long considered the site sacred.
Brown has heard stories from his grandfather, who lived to be 109, about Ocotillo--where mountains are named in tribal creation stories. He has taken his own son there to learn about his heritage. One giant geoglyph is registered on the National Registry of Historic Places. Tribes across the southwest convene here for sacred ceremonies.
But soon, Brown fears, the sound of turbines atop his ancestors’ graves will “be like beating on somebody’s soul…sacrificing something that’s been there for 10,000 years.” .
Despite the pleas of Native Americans, area residents and enviornmentalists seeking to stop the Ocotillo Express wind project, Imperial Valley Supervisors approved it by a 4-1 vote late yesterday after a two-day hearing. The project's Environmental Impact Review has already been approved by the Bureau of Land Management and final approval could come to begin road construction within days.
The project is among the first major industrial energy projects to gain approval using a new "fast tracking" approval process for energy projects on public lands--a process opponents say could lead to the destruction of many of America's scenic jewels and cultural heritage sites.
Native Americans have long bourne the brunt of broken promises by the federal government and now that sad legacy continues. Viejas tribal council member Raymond “Bear” Cuero stated that violations of NEPA, CEQUA, SB 38 and other laws have occurred. Environmentalists have attested that numerous state and federal designations to protect public lands and this fragile desert ecosystem specifically have also been trampled and ignored by federal, state and county officials in their haste to fast-track the industrial energy project touted as "renewable."
Barring a court injunction, construction is set to begin in early May--and along with it, the permanent destruction of a fragile desert environment and sites held sacred by local tribes for generations.
Brown told Supervisors, “We’ve got to speak up. It’s our destiny….I believe that my people are telling me, it’s time to stand up, fight for us.”
He is not alone.
Helena Quintana Arrow-weed of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, decried the Supervisors' action as “one horrible, terrible, very bad day for everyone.” In an e-mail forwarded to ECM, she stated that Quechan tribal council members planned to meet today with Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico and other tribal representatives to strategize.
“ I believe they will form a coalition to work together to fight in court,” she predicted.
Residents and environmental groups have also lawyered up and are gearing up to likely file suits as well.
Viejas tribal chairman Anthony Pico noted that Native Americans have contributed a lot to Imperial Valley's economy. A single casino project creates more jobs than Pattern's wind project. Viejas has contributed large sums to many charitable causes in Imperial Valley benefitting children, the elderly and other community members. He noted that the tribe has done so for years, not to curry favor, but because "it's the right thing to do." He added, "It is us who will be here long after Pattern is gone, if you so choose."
The Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association has also weighed in against the project due to its threat of destruction of "irreplaceable cultural resources" and more.
The scope is massive: 112 turbines each 450 feet tall with blades the size of commercial jetliner wingspans on 12,500 acres of public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, adjacent to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In addition, underground power lines, 83 miles of fiberoptic, many miles of new roads, and a 2.1 acre substation and switchyard will be built. The project is forecast to generate 265 MW of power, or enough to fuel 125,000 homes.
Supervisors surprised opponents by approving an implementation agreement instead of the standard conditional use permit (CUP).
“Lawyers on our side say it is illegal to make that kind of substitution outside the EIR framework,” Susan Massey told ECM. “Our lawyers say the agreement has no teeth and leaves the county without control.” A CUP would have allowed the county to revoke the permit if certain conditions were not met, including mitigation required in the EIR.
During the hearing, Native American monitors took the unusual step of showing a Powerpoint presentation of sites normally kept secret from the public.
Carmen Lucas revealed that the site contains 20,000 lithic artifacts, or debris from making stone tools, as well as geoglyphs such as an arrow pointing toward water, cleared circles used as dreamquests, and a massive spokeswheel geoglyph on the National Register of Historic Places. The latter has a 360 degree viewshed of sacred mountains in local tribes’ creation stories including the Coyote, Pinon, and Jacumba Mountains. “This is the corridor in which the spirit travels,” she said. But that corridor will soon be blocked by massive whirling turbines.
Pattern Energy’s Glenn Hodges, in his presentation, stated “This is a landmark project that will help the county on its path to economic vitality through renewable energy.”
The project application has estimated the project will bring $150 million in tax revenues to the county over the next 30 years, as well as short-term sales tax revenues during construction. Besides construction jobs, Hodges told Supervisors that 20 permanent jobs will be created—even though last week, he was caught on video admitting that only one permanent job can be guaranteed.
Natalie O’Brien, also with Pattern, claimed no bighorn sheep are on the site (even though ECM provided photos documenting sheep in the project boundary). She also claimed “very low use” by birds and bats, even though a document submitted by California State Parks during the scoping process cited concerns over negative impacts on migratory birds, eagles and bats.
Conrad Kramer with the Anza Borrego Foundation testified that “the staff of Anza Borrego Desert State Park has been silenced” but voiced concerns over “huge” visual impacts as well as negative impacts on bighorn sheep, birds, bats, and “huge mortality rates” among flat-tailed horned lizards and other ground life.
As for concerns voiced by residents over health impacts from infrasonic low-frequency sound, O’Brien stated smugly, “We think that should be discounted.”
She offered no valid reason why supervisors should not explore the growing body of medical and scientific evidence documenting health damage from infrasonic sound—an issue so serious that San Diego’s Planning Commission is consider enacting a strict infrasound limit on wind turbines. That's after residents in multiple countries have fled their homes near wind facilities due to severe headaches, ear pain, heart problems and sleeplessness, among other symptoms. Locally, Manzanita Indians have complained of health problems from living near wind turbines and now an epdemiiologist has measured ground currents 1,000 times normal in their tribal hall and church. There are also serious safety issues.
Another speaker stated that offiicials around the world are taking a hard look at health impacts of wind turbines. Some, such as Brown County, Wisconsin health officials and supervisors, have asked for state emergency funds to relocate families near turbines who are suffering health impacts. More and more are asking for larger setbacks to lessen serious health problems.
Ocotillo resident Cherrie Pelley read a statement indicating that Pattern previously claimed noise levels will not pose problems for residents and will sound like a dishwasher in the next room. But she disclosed that Pattern’s Glenn Hodges previously offered at an August 25, 2011 Bureau of Land Management meeting to buy her home and her neighbor’s homes. She said Hodges stated that “that area is going to be at the borderline of the legal limit.” But she recalled, “I repied `I don’t want to sell my house; it’s everything I ever dreamed of.’”
Pattern has repeatedly refused to be interviewed or provide comment. The company declined to speak with ECM or with ABC 10 news when serious seismic safety concerns were raised about placing virtually atop active earthquake faults in an area with a strong likelihood of a major quake--on soil capable of liquefaction.
An environmentalist from Basin and Range said he was “horrified” that an ocotillo forest and sensitive desert lands would be considered for industrializing. He likened it as “akin to drawing a knifeblade across the Mona Lisa.”
He also said that opponents were given only 30 days to review changes in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that weighed 25 pounds and contained 5,500 pages.
“We don’t know what all the changes are,” he said.
Ocotillo resident Jim Pelley, an engineer and award-wining photojournalist, presented a slide show with evidence suggesting that the site has inadequate winds and the project should not have received federal funding for that reason. Pattern's figures indicate wind speeds of only 8.8-10.7 mph on average annually. “Annual average wind speed for a financially viable wind project needs to be between 14.3 mph and 15.7 mph,” said Pelley.
Pattern denied the claim, indicating it has had five meteorologists who have measured wind speeds higher in the atmosphere and found them ample.
As for Pattern’s contention that wind speeds at higher elevations are faster, Pelley told ECM, “We have done some Ocotillo MythBuster experiments of our own…On those days where the wind is not blowing at ground elevations, we have fired off model rockets that travel over 600 feet in the air and then a parachute is deployed—it basically comes straight down….We have also released helium balloons and they don hot change course at higher elevations.”
Nearly all of the testimony in favor of the project centered around jobs and came from people who don’t have to live near the turbines, including labor officials and Chamber of Commerce leaders.
Imperial Valley has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Pattern representative Glenn Hodges told Supervisors the project will bring 20 permanent jobs as well as hundreds of temporary construction jobs---even though earlier this month an ECM video documented him admitting to a planner that Pattern would guarantee only one permanent local job.
But Eleanor Jones, an Ocotillo resident, said she supports the turbines because Pattern has shown a willingness to give charitable contributions in this impoverished community. “Sometimes things have to change for the better, even if we don’t like looking at them,” she said of the industrial wind turbines.
Supervisors offered explanations for their decisions.
Supervisor Raymond Castillo said he supported the project because he believes global warming is a serious problem that officials must help to control.
Board chairman Michael Kelly called the project part of “the systematic advancement of civilization” that also includes telephones and air travel. He noted that while once Indians were the region’s only occupants, whites have since come to spread “civilization” across the country.
Supervisors John Renison and Gary Wyatt indicated they, too, view the project as the way of the future.
Supervisor Jack Terrazo, who cast the sole “no” vote, said the project “scares me” because he
fears Pattern may abandon the project if it proved unprofitable and leave the turbines. Pattern has a checkered record in Hawaai. A Campo, California wind farm built by Pattern blew apart in a storm as ECM previously reported, needing all 75 blades replaced; litigation ensued and rusted turbines continue to litter the site two years later. Pattern's parent company, Riverstone, and its founder paid $50 million to settle a public pension fraud case in New York.
Terrazo wanted to be sure that they had a bond to cover decommissioning the project, which has a projected 30-year life.
In earlier testimony, Pattern said decommissioning would including removing turbines and roads, though infrastructure deeper than three feet would remain.
But for the wildlife and cultural resources slated to be destroyed, project opponents say the damage will be forever.