While a swath of residents made good on their promise to show up in full force against energy company Terra-Gen at a public hearing on Monday for the proposed wind turbines above Scotia, project executives found some allies in unionized labor and climate change absolutists.
In a showdown for the controversial wind energy project, day one of Terra-Gen’s appeal hearing gave the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors a chance to digest the proposal to build 47 wind turbines on the Bear River and Monument ridges.
The company’s pitch to the county at Monday’s hearing mirrored past showings: Combat climate change, foster 300 temporary local construction jobs and garner a yearly average of $248,000 in sales tax revenue – much of it for the county’s school districts.
But opposition from environmentalists, Eel River Valley residents and Native American tribal members remained as strong as ever. Critics say the turbines would desecrate sacred Wiyot land, harm threatened species and hand the ridges to Terra-Gen, a large corporation with private equity ownership.
Across nearly seven hours of public comment (with up to three more hours scheduled for Tuesday), the public opinion was slightly more mixed than at last month’s Planning Commission hearing, where the vast majority of speakers opposed the plan.
The largest change was the arrival of dozens of unionized labor workers, nearly all of whom echoed a mantra of supplying jobs with benefits to Humboldt County’s embattled blue-collar workforce. They said most local workers are required to travel out of the county for income.
Last week, Terra-Gen and the Humboldt-Del Norte Labor Council announced they had agreed on labor jobs staying local and union-friendly during construction.
“Let’s keep our people at home with their families making a good living wage,” one worker said.
Meanwhile, Terra-Gen project lead Nathan Vajdos leaned on the dangers of climate change in his pitch, choking up as he recounted experiences with natural disasters back in Texas.
“The question is not should we do something,” Vajdos said. “The question is, do we have the courage to act when we know there is a problem and we have the ability to be a part of the solution?”
But as they have done before, Wiyot members and indigenous advocates pilloried Terra-Gen’s claim to climate activism. Cheryl Seidner, a Wiyot tribal elder and former chairperson, said the tribe’s sacred ties to the ridges go back for millennia.
“We want clean energy, just like everyone else,” Seidner said. “But we are not your manifest destiny. It is time to stop.”
Later, current Wiyot Tribal Chairman Ted Hernandez spoke more directly to Terra-Gen officials.
“Bad things are going to happen,” Hernandez warned the company’s staff. “We aren’t going to stay silent. … We’re going to protect what’s sacred to us.”
To cheers from the crowd, Hernandez compared Terra-Gen officials to “the crow – the ones that like shiny things and like to tell stories.”
Others continued to blast Terra-Gen’s planning efforts. A handful of speakers said the company put shoddy effort into its environmental assessments.
“This is the absolute worst (environmental impact report) I’ve ever seen,” said one speaker, “and that’s based on reviewing over 100 different projects in California. It is full of inconsistent, misleading and factually incorrect information.”
The supervisors didn’t weigh in much, though 5th District Supervisor Steve Madrone was ready with lengthy questions that largely criticized Terra-Gen’s plans for mitigating potential impacts.
Down the table, 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass would needle her colleague for launching a “filibuster” against the company’s representatives.
Meanwhile, 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell found herself on the receiving end of criticism from speakers who accused her of not engaging Rio Dell residents about the project.
Some suggested that Fennell should recuse herself from the vote since she serves as a board member on the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, which plans to purchase a quantity of Terra-Gen’s wind energy for local use.
Rio Dell Mayor Debra Garnes arrived with a packet of opposition statements from 600 of the city’s residents. Garnes chafed at receiving just two minutes to speak (like everyone else at public comment). As time ran out, she let the supervisors know she would not stop talking.
“I have a loud voice,” Garnes said to rousing cheers, “so I will continue to say we are against this project!”
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