Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Why the Supes Denied Terra-Gen's Wind Project, Despite a Series of 11th Hour Concessions from the Company

Posted By and on Tue, Dec 17, 2019 at 8:27 PM

With Humboldt County supervisors Rex Bohn and Virginia Bass having indicated they would support controversial plans to erect a wind farm on Monument and Bear River ridges south of Rio Dell, and supervisors Steve Madrone and Estelle Fennell having indicated they would not, Supervisor Mike Wilson was left as the swing vote.

Obviously deeply conflicted at the end of a marathon 16-hour meeting spread over two days that were punctuated by emotional testimony and the occasional outburst, Wilson was still clearly trying to get to yes. Torn between the realities of the climate crisis and a project that promised to deliver 56 percent of Humboldt County’s electricity load from 47 wind turbines — but planned to do so by placing 20 of them on Bear River Ridge, desecrating a sacred ancestral prayer site of the Wiyot Tribe known as Tsakiyuwit — Wilson first asked if the project would be viable if moved entirely to Monument Ridge.
click to enlarge Project Site Boundaries and Surrounding Land - SOURCE: HUMBOLDTGOV.ORG
Randy Hoyle, senior vice president and chief development officer of Terra-Gen, the company proposing the project, replied that the company had already crunched the numbers on that alternative and it wasn’t feasible.

“I understand the extreme sensitivity of this but, from a commercial standpoint, remove the turbines from Bear River Ridge and this project will not be built,” he said.

Wilson said that was the sticking point for him. He wanted to support the project but couldn’t do so if it meant adding to the generational trauma suffered by Wiyot tribal members, whose ancestors had been victims of an attempted genocide, by forever altering a “culturally important” landscape.

“From my perspective, this is a heavy and horrible place to be at this moment,” Wilson said, lamenting that the Wiyot Tribe had brought up the sacred nature of the site months ago when commenting on the project’s environmental impact report, yet apparently little had been done to bring them to the table to find a workable solution. Now, as he flailed to find one, the tribe didn’t have a seat the table. “It’s somewhat patronizing that we’re having this conversation without the impacted peoples — I apologize for that. This is terrible. I’m crying. Seriously.”

Hoyle then responded, saying he’d felt the “sensitivity of the issue,” as well, floating a potential solution. He said the projected local sales and property tax revenues from the project — a total of $9.8 million over the span of its 30-year lease that many considered one of the project’s more tantalizing carrots from the county’s perspective — could be redirected to “certain affected people” at the board’s discretion.

“I think along with that … we are willing to put aside and fund an endowment, and we’ll call it a community endowment, prior to the start of construction for the board to distribute at its full discretion,” Hoyle said, adding that the company was then and there pledging $1 million to go into the endowment to be dispersed as the board sees fit. “That is something the applicant is willing to consider.”

Seemingly a bit surprised at what he’d just heard, Bohn, the board chair, mused that he knows “sacred sites are not for sale” and called Wiyot Tribal elder Cheryl Seidner to the podium to offer a response on behalf of the tribe.
“There’s not enough money to do that,” Seidner said, addressing her comments directly to Terra-Gen’s representatives. “You would not sell your mother, we cannot sell our earth. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful. You don’t know where Indigenous peoples come from. We come from here. We come from the earth.”

Moments later, motions were made and the board voted 3-2, with Bohn and Bass dissenting, to deny the project. During the course of the board’s deliberations, each of the supervisors expressed feeling conflicted about the project to varying degrees, weighing the need for dramatic action in the face of what a bevy of reports by the most trusted climate scientists predict is a looming environmental catastrophe against the need to protect the Wiyot Tribe’s sacred site and other localized environmental concerns associated with the 600-foot wind turbines and their ultimate decommissioning.

“This is a terrible day,” Wilson said, adding moments later at the conclusion of the board’s roll-call vote, “I think I want to throw up.”

Leading into the meeting, which began Dec. 16, community sentiment toward the Terra-Gen project had been at a boiling point for more than a month, beginning with a series of heavily attended hearings at the Humboldt County Planning Commission that concluded Nov. 21, after hours and hours of public comment, with a split vote declining to certify an environmental impact report for the project and denying it a conditional use permit. Terra-Gen then appealed that decision to the board, which opted to move its meetings to the Adorni Center to accommodate what it expected would be an overflow crowd.

click to enlarge By the afternoon of Dec. 16, the overflow crowd at Eureka's Adorni Center had thinned a bit. - SAM LEISHMAN
  • Sam Leishman
  • By the afternoon of Dec. 16, the overflow crowd at Eureka's Adorni Center had thinned a bit.
Hundreds of people showed up Dec. 16, many carrying signs supporting the Wiyot Tribe and warning against the desecration of sacred land, with others explicitly putting Bohn and Fennell — both up for re-election next year — on notice that approving the project could come with consequences.

The crowd listened as staff walked the supervisors through the background of the project, its environmental impacts and the various possible actions the supervisors could take.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires the county to examine a vast number of environmental impacts, ranging from air quality and traffic to cultural resources and wildlife.

If there are substantial impacts, the law requires they be mitigated to levels that are considered insignificant. If the problems cannot be mitigated, the lead agency — in this case, the county — is not supposed to permit the project. However, CEQA does allow the lead agency to issue what’s known as a “statement of overriding concerns” essentially saying that while the impacts are unavoidable, the project is so important it should be done anyway.

County Building and Planning Department staff recommended that the county make such a finding and certify the environmental report even though it listed eight different problems that could not be mitigated. These ranged from aesthetics — the visual effects of having miles of 600-foot towers outfitted with blinking red lights on one of the county’s most prominent ridges — to killing marbled murrelets and potentially reintroduced condors, both of which are endangered species and protected by federal law.

Terra-Gen Director of Wind Development Nathan Vajdos showed pictures of the havoc climate change can create and explained why Bear River Ridge was the perfect — and the only — suitable location for a wind energy project on the California coast. While the company studied hundreds of sites, representatives said this was the only one that had strong and consistent winds, close proximity to a highway and port, amenable land owners and a place to plug into the statewide electrical grid via an electrical substation in Bridgeville.

Vajdos added that Terra-Gen had made many changes to the project to address community concerns.

Throughout the two-day discussion, supervisors raised a host of concerns and questions, ranging from the project’s impact on neighboring property values to whether the county may be putting the proverbial cart before the horse by approving a wind project without an overarching wind energy ordinance.

The most bitterly contested issue, however, was the effect on Tsakiyuwit.
click to enlarge Bear River Ridge - COURTESY OF THE WIYOT TRIBE
  • Courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe
  • Bear River Ridge
Although the Wiyot do not own Bear River Ridge, they consider it a sacred prayer site from which they can view all of their ancestral lands. Moreover, it is a tribal ethnological area, full of rare plants important to tribal culture. Dozens of members of the public, including elders of the Wiyot Tribe and members of its tribal council, expressed dismay and, in some cases, rage that the county would callously allow the ridge to be desecrated by the wind farm, which would necessitate clear-cutting miles of forest and pouring acres of cement pads before erecting the towers with their rotating blades and blinking lights.

During the first few hours of the all-day meeting, most of the speakers expressed their appreciation for the project. Terra-Gen had recently signed papers with some of the county’s unions, guaranteeing 300 construction jobs to their members. Dozens of trade workers expressed gratitude for a couple of year’s worth of work that would pay a prevailing wage, offer benefits and not require them to leave town. (During deliberations, Fennell would later question why the company’s concession came only after the planning commission’s denial and not months before, when she personally requested it.)

Many other members of the public were happy with the project because it addressed climate change. Wind energy is a renewable power source that can reduce the need for dependence on fossil fuels, such as natural gas, which currently supplies at least half of Humboldt County’s electricity.

As the day wore on, the contented members of the audience apparently went home, leaving the field to a group that was generally younger, more outspoken and angry about the environmental damage they felt that the project would bring. Many described it as “green washing,” a money-making venture for an outside company that was using fear to sell its product with proceeds going to an umbrella corporation — Energy Capital Partners — that is heavily invested in fossil fuels.
click to enlarge A satelite image of the proposed project site and an approxiation of where the turbines will be located. - THE DRAFT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORT. PHOTOILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN WEBSTER
  • A satelite image of the proposed project site and an approxiation of where the turbines will be located.
“This is an ecological disaster dressed up in green clothing,” said public speaker Cliff Berkowitz, who has also announced he will challenge Bohn for the First District seat next year.

While acknowledging the seriousness and reality of the climate crisis, many speakers pointed out that not every solution proposed is a good one.

One young woman said that she was tired of hearing older members of the public saying that they liked the project because it would protect the younger generation from the effects of climate change.

“Don’t speak for us,” she shouted. “We are here and we say, ‘No!’”

Members of the public grew increasingly vehement about the disrespect shown to members of the Wiyot Tribe.

At one point, Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez warned ominously that Bear River Ridge is sacred to the tribe and its members intended to protect its land.

“Don’t come to us when something goes wrong, because we’re telling you now something’s wrong,” he said.

Near closing time at 7:10 p.m. on Dec. 16, at the tail end of a 10-hour-long meeting with no substantial breaks, people were clearly running out of patience, ignoring Bohn’s admonitions not to applaud, boo or cheer speakers. Many were resentful about the two-minute slots alloted to members of the public wishing to comment, and many spoke until the microphone fell silent.

The meeting picked up Dec. 17 where it left off just 14 hours earlier, with dozens still lined up to speak.

One young man warned the board that approving the project would be “personally” accepting responsibility for the arrest of “hundreds, if not thousands, of Indigenous people” who would inevitably turn out to take direct action to protect the sacred site. When the man refused to leave the microphone after his two minutes, Bohn called a brief recess, reconvening a few minutes later after he was apparently convinced to return to his seat.

click to enlarge Protesters took to the streets of Rio Dell and Scotia on Saturday to decry Terra-Gen's proposed wind project. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Protesters took to the streets of Rio Dell and Scotia on Saturday to decry Terra-Gen's proposed wind project.

One woman who addressed the board questioned whether the Wiyot Tribe believed all land was sacred, or just land it could control.

“The ridge top will not be lost,” she said. “The ridge top will be given the honor of harnessing the wind that blows across its summit.”

The comment drew boos and a shout of “bullshit” from the crowd.

When the discussion returned to the board, a couple supervisors said they worried some of the jeers had a chilling effect and may have intimidated some people in favor of the project, preventing them from speaking.

Supervisors took turns asking county staff and Terra-Gen officials questions about the project over the course of a couple hours.

Madrone zeroed in on the question of decommissioning and who would end up paying the cost of removing all those turbines and concrete platforms from the ridge once the project was no longer viable. Could the company pledge $4.7 million — $100,000 for each turbine — toward decommissioning?

Hoyle said the company had done an “exhaustive analysis” of the costs and deemed it infeasible. But, he said, the company would commit to providing $50,000 for each turbine for decommissioning.

“We will agree to that with your approval today,” he said.
click to enlarge An artistic rendering of what the turbines will look like from the town of Scotia. - TERRA-GEN
  • An artistic rendering of what the turbines will look like from the town of Scotia.
When discussion returned to the board, supervisors spoke passionately about the decision before them. Wilson indicated he was on the fence. Bass said she knew she was going to lose friends and make enemies no matter how she voted, but soon indicated she felt climate change was too grave a threat not to support the project. Fennell read a lengthy statement detailing the depths of the conflict she felt.

“It’s unfortunately no surprise to me that the communities most affected or impacted by this project are arguably the least well off, and they’re also in my district,” Fennell said, pointing to Rio Dell, Scotia, the Eel River Valley and the Wiyot Tribe, adding that she’s heard from a bevy of constituents opposed to the project.

Bohn said he, too, was conflicted, noting that he was in the office until 9:30 p.m. Dec. 16 doing additional research and back at 5:30 the following morning feeling like he’d worked out because he’d “tossed and turned so much” throughout the night. Ultimately, he said, he supported the project because he’s come around to believing the climate crisis is real and needs to be addressed. Plus, he said, if the county votes down this project, he fears another won’t come along.

The stage was set for Wilson as the swing vote. While angstily inquiring about potential compromises, he bemoaned the tight timeline. Earlier in the day, Hoyle had noted that federal tax credits that made the project financially feasible for Terra-Gen were expiring in 2020 and the company would take any delay by the board as a denial.
“I resent this federal administration for putting us on this timeline bullshit,” Wilson said, quickly stopping and apologizing for swearing in what was being broadcast on television and over local radio airwaves, before noting the tax credits’ expiration was the result of the 2016 election. “These elections have consequences and this wouldn’t even be a question of renewing these tax credits if we had a different administration running the show.”

A short time later, Bass made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation to move the project forward, certifying the EIR and granting a conditional use permit. The vote failed 2-3, with Wilson, Madrone and Fennell dissenting. Told by staff a passing vote was needed to make the denial official, a motion was made to flatly reject the project. It passed 4-1, with Bass having joined the majority. She offered no explanation for the shift in position.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of  Tsakiyuwit.
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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