How dispiriting to read that officials at Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) have fallen hook, line and turbine for a deeply flawed energy proposal. Like many outside colonizers since 1850, a Manhattan energy company, Terra-Gen, is relying on local officials to support its plan to place up to 60 wind turbines, each standing 600 feet tall, on Monument and Bear River ridges. The RCEA's Michael Winkler, in a June 27 op-ed in the Journal ("Why I Support Terra-Gen's Wind Project"), epitomized this colonial mindset.
Let's start with Winkler's belief that Terra-Gen's wind farm "can potentially provide substantial environmental and economic benefits to the citizens of Humboldt County. ... Large-scale onshore wind at the proposed location is the best choice for Humboldt County."
The Monument-Bear River Ridge ecological corridor is among the worst sites for an industrial anything. The large natural meadow ecosystem is nearly pristine, with rare expanses of native grasses maintained for centuries by the Wiyot Tribe. The "bird-shredding" turbines would cause widespread destruction of several state and federally protected species, including but not limited to hawks, golden and bald eagles, and peregrine falcons; an important colony of hoary bats; and the North Coast's celebrated but much diminished population of marbled murrelets.
Terra-Gen resorted to its own brand of "tobacco science" to hide these impacts. The company's Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) uses just one year of surveys for endangered marbled murrelets (protocols demand a minimum of two years), whose primary flyway to Headwaters Forest (for which taxpayers paid $480 million to protect) is over these ridges.
Stantec, the corporation that conducted Terra-Gen's wildlife surveys, tells us that the windmills will kill 10.43 to 20.86 marbled murrelets over the project's estimated 30-year lifespan. (Santec, a Canadian firm, specializes in oil and gas development, coal mining, fracking, shale and tar sands mining, thousand-mile oil pipelines and transmission lines.) However, by raising the model's turbine-collision input by just 1 percent the murrelet mortality rate doubles.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), Bear River and Monument ridges are "inappropriate for wind development" due to large populations of rare and protected species that would be destroyed, including murrelets, bats and raptors, as well as the "loss and possibly extirpation of a disjunct population of horned larks."
In May, the Wiyot Tribe said the wind farm would present "un-mitigatable impacts to Tsakiyuwit," the Wiyot name for the Bear River Ridge area, which is in Wiyot territory. At risk are "culturally important sites, flora, fauna and the remainder of Wiyot territory that is within its viewshed. The Wiyot have experienced mass genocide and been robbed of most of their sacred lands around Humboldt Bay and the lower Eel River. Much of their ancestral land has been developed, or the native vegetation types they helped to shape and tend, converted to alien pasture grasses and weeds. In the spectrum of impacted landscapes, Tsakiyuwit has persisted to the present as an iconic gem of native coastal prairie that still holds the signs of the Wiyot's caretaking and stewardship."
The wind turbines will be visible from just about anywhere in western Humboldt County (that's why, in 1853, surveyors placed a monument there), especially from Scotia, Rio Dell and the Eel River Valley. Residents could suffer from turbine noise, including low-frequency "infrasound" that can cause sleep problems, headaches, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea and memory problems. Terra-Gen makes no mention of these noise problems, despite protests by virtually every community that has had windmills crop up in their neighborhoods. Officials in Rio Dell and Scotia oppose the project.
Wind turbines are infamous for spontaneous combustion, a problem far more common than most realize. The flames are exacerbated by 400 gallons of oil contained in each windmill and, of course, by high winds. On Monument-Bear River Ridge a turbine fire could race across dry grasslands, through the surrounding forest and right into town. Rural fire departments often do not have the capacity to reach the turbines with retardants, so they simply let them burn.
Residents will also cringe while the turbines are built, which will require the following:
Construction of 17 miles of new road, some 200 feet wide and rising through the Jordan Creek watershed, which is just beginning to recover from slides caused by Maxxam's forest liquidation;
Delivery of 11,000 yards of concrete to build 60 massive slabs, each 65 feet in diameter and placed 10 feet into the ground on 3 acres of scraped ground, that will never be removed;
Six new 400-foot-tall meteorological towers;
Ten thousand truck trips, with trucks up to 90 feet long and weighing 110 tons;
Two temporary freeway bypasses at Hookton Road and 12th Street in Fortuna;
Twenty-five miles of 100-foot-wide, 90-acre, clear-cut corridors;
Nine hundred acres of surrounding forest permanently clear-cut;
A new grid tie-in at Bridgeville, requiring a new line-transmission easement 100 feet wide and running through 25 miles of forestland kept clear with herbicides (another fire danger).
In order to give its project a green patina, Terra-Gen has amortized, over 25 years, the immense carbon front-loading required to build, place and maintain the windmills, which therefore won't begin reducing local greenhouse gas emissions for several years. Terra-Gen and its parent company, the giant Energy Capital Partners, have little interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If they did, they would get out of the fossil fuel business altogether, yet this portfolio is growing.
Certainly Terra-Gen wants to sell wind power, and why not? It's money. Terra-Gen has accelerated the Humboldt County project to take advantage of tax breaks that expire in 2020. Less well known is that Terra-Gen is desperate for cash. In February, the S&P Global Ratings service downgraded Terra-Gen's rating from B to B-minus, indicating "weak cash flow and debt paydown. ... The negative outlook reflects our expectations that Terra-Gen's cash flow generation profile could worsen further. ... The company may have difficulty refinancing in 2021."
This should serve as a warning, especially in combination with Winkler's blithe reminder that "Humboldt has some of the strongest and most consistent winds in North America. ..." If Terra-Gen can mine wind at one of our region's most biologically and culturally important sites, then why not Trinidad Head, Patrick's Point State Park, the King Range, Big Lagoon, the Bald Hills?
The only thing renewable and green about this project is the money.
Like the nuclear power industry, Winkler dismisses solar power with worn-out tropes. One thing he got right, though, is that solar power "has played and still can play an important role in giving individuals more direct control of their energy."
In this way he unintentionally highlights two points that corporations like Terra-Gen and Energy Capital Partners want you to forget: Installation of rooftop solar panels, combined with even modest levels of conservation, does more to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions than wind farms ever could while posing no harm to our wildlands. And this power would be held by the people, not by a faceless Manhattan conglomerate.
Greg King is executive director of Siskiyou Land Conservancy, a non-profit land trust dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife habitat on California's North Coast. www.SiskiyouLand.org
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