At a press conference yesterday outside the gleaming corporate towers occupied by Pattern Energy in La Jolla, a coalition of environmental groups, Native American tribes and outraged citizens urged President Barack Obama to stop fast-tracking of massive energy projects on public lands and halt construction at the Ocotillo Express wind facility immediately.
Heavy equipment has begun grading the site, ripping massive ocotillo cacti out by the roots, burying burrowing owl nesting sites and breaking hearts of the many people who love this desert land.
“How would you feel if the President proposed a wind project on top of your ancestors’ graves, or on top of Arlington National Cemetery?” asked Keeny Escalanti, president of the Quechan Indian tribe. Yesterday, the tribe announced it has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction to halt the desecration of sacred lands including a dozen or more cremation/burial sites. More lawsuits are likely to follow.
Tribal representatives, skeptical of Pattern’s survey of cultural resources, sent in their own trained forensic dogs and within hours, promptly found six additional burial/cremation sites in the areas deemed least likely for such discoveries, a tribal leader disclosed.
The project is one of 18 in the pipeline nationally on federal lands under a new “fast tracking” process that critics say tramples the rights of Native Americans as well as local residents and environmental protections. Final approval allows for the “take” including the killing of up to 10 endangered bighorn sheep (5 lambs and 5 ewes), a decision that has outraged environmentalists.
The site is known to also contain tens of thousands of cultural artifacts including village sites, as well as petroglyphs and geoglyphs. Archaeologists from the state’s Historic Preservation Office have designated one site on the project as a “mega-site.” It is also a site utilized today by multiple tribes for ceremonial purposes.
Viejas media relations spokesman Robert Scheid warned that Tule Wind in San Diego’s McCain Valley may be next to be “ram-rodded at the expense of residents and those who cherish these areas.” Tule Wind will be considered Friday morning by San Diego’s Planning Commission. Scheid said that “all options are on the table” to halt the fast-tracking process.
Other lawsuits are likely to be filed soon, including litigation set to be filed by the Save Our Communities Foundation and Backcountry Against Dumps, Donna Tisdale of Boulevard has indicated. Boulevard, in San Diego’s East County, may soon be surrounded by numerous massive-scale energy projects including industrial wind and solar facilities as well as a substation.
“We are not opposed to renewable energy,” Greybuck Espinoza, a Viejas Tribal Council member, stated. “Native Americans are among the first environmentalists.” He made clear that tribes support even wind energy where appropriately sited including on tribal lands. But they oppose the fast-tracking process and the Ocotillo and McCain Valley sites in particular.
“The sweep of each blade is larger than a football field,” said Espinoza, adding with foreboding, “This massive iron curtain will rip right through one of the most important cultural resources sites in all of Southern California.”
Tribal leaders also expressed dismay that President Obama has thus far failed to answer letters sent to him by the leaders of the Viejas and Quechan tribes. As leaders of sovereign nations, tribal leaders feel disrespected. They have asked to meet with decision makers- Secretary Salazar and President Obama, but thus far their pleas have gone unanswered.
Environmentalists also spoke out, including the Desert Protective Council and the Anza Borrego Desert Park Foundation. The former Superintendent of the park, who has accused the Governor’s office of ordering park employees to stifle negative comments on the project’s impacts on the park, also spoke in El Centro to decry the proposed destruction of public lands. He accused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management of abrogating their responsibilities to protect wildlife.
“I think they have failed us,” he said. “It’s unprecedented that a government agency would look at an endangered population of bighorn sheep and allow five females and their lambs to be taken by Pattern Energy and the BLM.” He also called claims that radar and a single spotter in a 50 foot tower can save eagles from being slaughtered by turbine blades “smoke and mirrors.”
Destruction of the desert has already begun, with road and parking lot grading underway even before lawsuits can be heard. Massive ocotillo forests are being ripped up by the roots with no efforts even to transplant them. Burrowing owl tunnels are being caved in and collapsed, possibly trapping birds inside. Stakes supposed to protect sensitive resources have been driven over by heavy equipment as the massive clearing of vegetation continues, unchecked.
Elena Quintana Arrowweed, chairman of the Sierra Club’s desert committee, strongly denounced the project. “Anyone who knows and loves this unique desert, all the Southern California members should oppose this project, and oppose the fast-tracking of projects,” she said.
“The Department of the Interior is violating the law and rights to religious freedom and cultural identities,” said Diana Lindsay, a trustee with Anza Borrego Desert Park Foundation. “If not stopped, Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the Yuha Desert will become the first of many special places in the nation that will be sacrificed in the name of “renewable energy” to line the pockets of energy companies.” Costs of decommissioning will be left to the taxpayer and the desert can never be fully restored due to the massive foundations and destruction of the fragile desert floor, she observed.
She warned that the new fast-tracking process “also ignores the nation’s commitment to protect its scenic and natural resources…There is no time to consider locations that might make more sense, such as locating projects on already disturbed land or in cities closer to where the energy is needed, or in developing other renewable resources of energy such as rooftop solar.”
She warned that the impacts on Anza Borrego Desert State Park, which shares a five mile border with the adjacent wind project on federal Bureau of Land Management property, will be devastating.
“The 112 towers at over 400 feet tall will literally be within yards of the state park boundary, desecretating not only this park and its current pristine and dramatic view but also the nearby State Wilderness area and the newly designated Piedras Grandes States Cultural Preserve…It will have profound impacts on wildlife corridors and critical habitate for golden eagles, California condors and bighorn sheep,” said Lindsay, who also warned of introduction of invasive non-native plants that may destroy native plants inside the park, as well as desecreation of ancient cultural sites in the Yuha Desert that are supposed to be protected under the California Desert Conservation Plan, which designated it as a limited use area in 1980.
In Imperial Valley, where residents staged an earlier protest, engineer and Ocotillo resident Jim Pelly revealed that Pattern’s wind speed data recently released reveals just 10.7 mph winds at the site. “That’s class one wind speed-way below the minimum,” he said. “According to the Department of Energy website, for a viable project winds need to be class 3 wind speeds (around 14.3 to 15.7mph.).
Pattern has claimed in public meetings and the project Environmental Impact Report that its project will power 130,000 homes. But final approval documents signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar days ago say the project will power just 25,000 homes.
This raises serious questions about whether the project is, in fact, a massive boondoggle handing over federal subsidies—tax dollars—to a corporation for a project that appears to be not only inappropriate from a siting standpoint, but also not viable from an energy production point of view.
Some San Diego County residents turned out to oppose the Ocotillo Wind project and voiced outrage at their tax dollars being misused.
“I was born and raised in the backcountry. I’ve been hiking and enjoying it all my life,” Craig Maxwell, a Republican and former mayoral candidate in La Mesa, told ECM. “The notion that these projects can be pushed through without public consideration is horrible to me.”
A member the San Diego Democratic Central Committee who was also present told ECM the party may consider a resolution opposing the projects and the fast-tracking process. “We definitely need to learn more about this,” she said.
Residents of Ocotillo and Imperial Valley have also voiced concerns over serious potential health impacts. Turbines will surround homes on three sides, less than a half mile away. In other areas, residents that close to turbines have commonly experienced symptoms such as ear pain, chest pressure, headaches, heart palpations, inability to sleep, and more.
Turbines produce not only noise, but infrasound that goes through walls and is capable of causing health impacts, though the industry disputes the thousands of cases reported now around the world of illnesses near turbines. Wind facilities can also generate stray voltage or dirty electricity, including ground current. Ground current has been known to kill entire herds of livestock and cause health problems at lower levels including leukemia in children.
Ocotillo and Imperial Valley residents shared concerns over dust stirred up by construction in an area already suffering high asthma rates and where two cases of Valley Fever, a deadly disease, were diagnosed during Sunrise Powerlink construction in Ocotillo.
Anita Nicklin, a local resident, said that “20.2% of our children are diagnosed with asthma. We will likely face hospitalizations and absences from schools. We can also expect an increase in Valley Fever.” She warned that “many more wild areas are marked for devastation. This is only the beginning of the assault on public lands.”
Tribes, residents and environmentalists called on the public to join their efforts to persuade President Obama and Secretary Salazar to halt the destruction of public lands and instead, embrace rooftop solar. Meanwhile, Pattern continues its fast-track to destroy the desert, knowing that subsidies for wind energy run out at year’s end and if the project is not completed, the project won’t be economically viable, as a Pattern executive has stated in a public meeting.
Pattern has refused media requests to discuss the negative aspects of its project, including multiple requests from East County Magazine and our news partner, ABC 10 News.
ECM will be contacting the White House today to seek response from President Obama.
Meanwhile in San Diego and El Centro, the impassioned crowd also appealed to the Interior Secretary, chanting, “Mr. Salazar, stop this assault on our public lands!”