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Scorched Earth – Part II: The Rejection of the Fountain Wind Project, and Who Appealed the Decision

One month ago, on May 19, I sat in the Shasta County Resources Building with Director Paul Hellman to discuss being allowed more time to speak at the Public Land Planning Hearing on the Fountain Wind Project. An hour into the half-hour meeting, I stood up to leave. Director Hellman encouraged me to sit down and continue to discuss concerns that were new to him. Four hours later, as we left the building after 7 p.m., he extended an invitation for me to share this information with others.

I later discovered the presentation would be a 90-minute Zoom call with consultants and attorneys, not the planning department I expected. Two were prominent environmental attorneys from Sacramento. Without being advised to have an attorney present, I accepted the invitation, suspicious of the intentions. Curiously, I was given 5.5 hours off-the-record time I did not request, but I was not given extra time at the hearing. I ended my meeting with a message: “This is the county’s chance to hear us.”

I have expert knowledge of the Fountain Fire and wildfire mitigation that is valuable for understanding the project. Still, as I listened to those speaking in opposition during the hearing, many of whom I’d worked with to help focus their messages, I knew I didn’t need to speak for them; they spoke for themselves. On June 22, after nearly 10 hours, in a historic moment for Shasta County, the Planning Commissioners heard the people in eastern Shasta County regarding their opinions about the Fountain Wind Project, and rejected the project’s use permit.

Not for the faint of heart

The cameras from KRCR left after the planning department staff, consultants and applicant had spoken. It was difficult to decipher much of the audio and visual of the virtual meeting because of technical problems and images covered with ads from the applicant, Connectgen. Of the almost 400 people who initially attended the meeting, only the most adamant supporters and opponents remained, as others trickled out slowly along with the news cameras. Most importantly, media missed the most critical part of why the land planning commissioners voted the way they did. Residents woke up the following day to discover the use permit was denied. Previously, the prevailing expectation left no doubt that the permit would pass unanimously. Instead, the commissioners unanimously rejected it.

What the cameras missed

During the meeting, the commissioners listened intently, noting they had already read thousands of pages, had engaged in research themselves, and had read public comments, the EIR, and the staff report before making a decision. District 5 Commissioner Patrick Wallner even held up two yellow notebooks filled with notes he’d taken as he listened carefully to arguments on both sides of the issue.

Connectgen focused on the economic benefits that the county would receive from the project. Connectgen praised a community benefits program they created and claimed they worked with locals to form it, including the Pit River Nation and Hill Country Medical Clinic. Yet, representatives from the Pit River Nation and Hill Country Medical Clinic denied working with Connectgen, and expressed displeasure that their organizations’ names were potentially being used to mislead others into believing that both entities supported the project. A closer look showed the groups that worked with Connectgen were not from the area, but greater Shasta County, leading some to wonder who would be helped by Connectgen’s community-benefits program.

The opponents were unlikely allies who at times have even been at odds with each other. They included all ages, political ideologies and cultures. Opponents included bands of the Pit River Nation, the Retired Aerial Firefighter Association, the California Pilots Association, environmental groups, local opposition groups, and many experts and nonexperts alike living within and around the community, all of whom expressed varying concerns. Their concerns included sacred tribal lands, wildfire risk, visual views, night skies, water from natural springs, property values, ability to obtain insurance, aviation, wildlife and the hampering of wildfire efforts on the ground and in the air.

Notably absent from the meeting was Pattern Energy, which owns Hatchet Ridge Wind, which had submitted a letter that voiced concern that the project would “have a significant financial impact” on its development.

Perhaps their recent partnership with Connectgen, appearing to be formed after their letter on a new project, influenced them not to speak at the hearing as they found other reasons to compensate for their financial loss.

Letter P39 to DEIR from Pattern Energy found in volume 2 of the Final Environmental Impact Report on pg 2-706

District 3 Commissioner Steven Kerns observed that most in attendance in favor of the project were not from the area, and those opposed were from the area. Commissioner Patrick Wallner mentioned that in the few days preceding the hearing, he’d received many letters in favor of the project. These letters came from addresses mainly out of Shasta County, and although the letters had different names, for the most part they contained almost identical language. He also noted he’d heard consistently from opponents who attended all of the planning meetings for nearly two and a half years, but not once did someone in favor of the project attend the planning meetings.

Image of one of the many versions of letters stating the same thing found on the County’s webpage on June 14, 2021.

In the end, the Shasta County Planning Commission voted unanimously against the use permit. The commissioners believed that the long-term adverse effects outweighed short-term economic benefits, and discussed in more detail economics, cultural resources, wildfire, forest habitats and aesthetics.

Economics

The commissioners’ analysis went beyond the short-term benefits. They acknowledged the jobs and money the project could bring, but believed it would be detrimental to the environment for generations to come. District 1 Commissioner James Chapin noted the “temporary” removal of trees would take 80 to 100 years to grow back once replanted, and Wallner pointed out this meant the effects would last 145 to150 years, which would impact us and our grandchildren’s grandkids.

One economic benefit not in the reports was the financial benefits of bats. Commissioner Kerns cited studies showing that wind turbines are estimated to kill 800,000 bats a year in the U.S., but California bats are significant to agricultural resources both as pollinators and insectivores. California estimates bats’ economic benefits are $3.7 billion dollars to the state. Kerns, a biologist himself, disagreed that the impacts on bats would be similar to Hatchet Ridge. Though the two projects are close in proximity, the Fountain Wind project is much larger, and the two projects differ drastically geographically.

Map showing where the best wind is for Wind Energy in the U.S. is located. Why here?

Cultural Resources

Kerns also talked about economics in a short history lesson. He explained the goal of Peter Burnett, who waged an extermination campaign against Native Americans in California. Burnett said the war of extermination would not be over until the Native Americans were extinct. Between 1850 and 1860, the California Legislature appropriated $1.5 million to eradicate Native Americans, equivalent to $57 million today. “Why?” Kerns asked, “because they were in the way … and I’m not going to be a part of that.”

The irony is that Connectgen claims that more than 30 years’ of property tax would bring the county $50 million. Almost doubling the cost already spent eradicating the Native Americans, the site sits in the entire area of the Pit Nation’s ancestral lands.

Kerns also compared the project to placing turbines on Gettysburg. None of the commissioners agreed that the project justified desecrating sacred tribal lands. District 4 Commissioner Donn Walgamuth pointed out the hypocrisy of some who tell the Native Americans what they can and cannot do with their lands, but when people from outside come in to put a project on their sacred sites, they are supposed to accept it. Walgamuth did not believe jobs or money took precedence over sacred grounds. Wallner added, “It does [not do] anybody any service to desecrate sacred sites.” He echoed what the Pit River Nation expressed and consistently reiterated: They do not want any more resources taken. He explained that the desecration of Pit River Nation’s sites has been perpetual and has continued over the past 20 to 30 years.

Wildfire

Wildfires concerned residents, aerial firefighters, and commissioners. Kerns and Wallner spoke of many ignition sources this project could bring to the site. While the applicant said the project was one new ignition source, this is untrue. Each turbine, car, road, blasting equipment, person, electrical equipment and component inside the turbine are all new ignition points that would be closer to thousands of new ignition points than just one.

Kerns, the only commissioner who personally experienced the Fountain Fire, gave a unique perspective as a firefighter who fought it, whose home was threatened by it, and almost lost his life to it.

“I’ve seen the devastation fire can do, and I’ve seen the trauma it inflicts on lives,” Kerns said. “It’s literally one of the worst things that has happened in the area.” He was dissatisfied with the mitigation measures the applicant promised to help firefighting efforts that could help spot more fires.

“We don’t need more eyes on the ground,” Kerns said. “There is not one of us that lives in the community that is not looking for smoke on a summer day… We need to know we have the ability to fight the fires; we need forests thinned and roads without turbines on them.”

Fountain Fire 1992 unknown source crossing 299 E near Round Mountain and Montgomery Creek

Kerns explained an informal phone network already exists in these communities, which was in effect during the meeting when a logging truck crashed on 299E, and there was a concern about fire. It was merely two miles from Kerns’ home, and close to those who had traveled nearly 40 miles to attend the meeting. The applicant, oblivious to what was happening, explained how they could help provide more eyes on the ground to identify fires. As they spoke, many in the audience, including myself, received messages from friends, family, and neighbors warning us of the potential fire.

 

Part of the message I received from a family member during the meeting

Commissioners were also concerned with the testimony of pilots who explained the detriments it would present to aerial firefighters. Wallner, himself a pilot, spoke of the hazards that already exist flying over this area. He reminisced about one flight near the Hatchet Wind Turbines when the clouds were so thick that all that was visible was the occasional tips of the turbines breaking through the clouds. He said that as a pilot, this was a scary experience. More turbines would only add to the difficulty of flying. It’s also worth noting that this area is also a significant flight path for aerial ambulances.

Aesthetics

Visually, one commenter said, imagine a 60-story building within 1,000 feet of your property. Walgamuth mentioned that one of the most beautiful places he had been in the world was the last 100 miles coming home during the descent from Burney, and said, “That is where the true beauty lies.”

The commissioners believed that the Fountain Wind Project would forever  drastically damage the views for people living in communities near the project and all areas of Shasta County and further.

 One property as it exists today.

 The same property after the construction of the proposed Fountain Wind Project.

The AppealBefore voting, Wallner explained they all utilized the staff report and the other information noted above. The county staff and consultants compiled and interpreted the facts presented in the staff report (one commissioner noted staff strongly supported the project). A source informed me that hours spent by county staff on the project are at the expense of Connectgen, not the county. The commissioners concluded the project would have, “detrimental impacts to aesthetics; potential increased fire danger; impediments to fire fighting efforts; damage to wildlife, damage to natural resources; and damage to cultural and tribal resources.” Furthermore, commissioners said the proposed project, “will be detrimental to the health, safety, peace, morals, comfort and general welfare of persons residing or working in the neighborhood …”

Connectgen, which one recent commentary thought was possibly green colonialism, spoke of the benefits to the environment but their testimony scantly mentioned the climate. They did talk about the money and temporary jobs it would create (only 12 positions would be permanent).

Connectgen adamantly claims it is U.S. based, and that a U.S.-based company is doing the project. However, when the official appeal came, it was not from Connectgen, but Fountain Wind, LLC, a company owned by Iberdrola out of Spain. Their North American subsidiary is Avangrid. A look at their financial holdings shows more than 100 subsidiaries like Fountain Wind, LLC, all in America, starting on page 178. Avangrid/Iberdrola owned the original applicant Pacific Wind Development, LLC, which dropped out. Avangrid never dropped out of this project, as some have implied. International corporations like these are the actual backers of clean energy in the United States and the world. Their clean energy holdings are a fraction of their portfolio, including oil, pipelines and natural gas. Iberdrola’s CEO and three other executives are currently under investigation for spying, bribery, breach of privacy, money laundering and fraud in commercial documents for a probe dating 15 years in Spain. The case is still awaiting trial.

Climate change, carbon sequestration were absent from the appeal except for a few words at the end. The six reasons listed have absolutely nothing to do with the climate, and focuses on the economy and mitigating the adverse effects the project will bring, though many of the experts and commissioners themselves seem to have disagreed with their arguments which included: reducing the risk of “project-induced” fires, zoning was acceptable because of Hatchet Ridge, wind energy is in forested areas in the U.S. (actually only 4% are and only Hatchet Ridge is similarly forested), they would avoid archaeological sites and not disturb cultural resources, it would invest $300 million in the county, and a comprehensive environmental review was done.

Screenshot of Iberdrola’s Subsidiaries, including 81.5% ownership of FountainWind, LLC

The appeal, written by Fountain Wind, LLC, argued that commissioners failed to recognize the mitigation measures and conditions of approval that would address the public’s concerns, an inaccurate understanding of the project risks, and a failure to appreciate its significant benefits for the environment and the economy. There is some irony in stating they ignored economics since three commissioners are employed or own construction businesses, work for engineering firms and acknowledge they are pro-development and participate in unions that benefit from such a project. They stated it was difficult to decide against the project for those reasons. Why are there more than 100 different mitigation measures for a project with little impact to the environment? Perhaps the applicant should be reminded of CEQA, which says people can come to different conclusions using the same facts. It was not the staff or applicant to determine whether the project was appropriate; it was the Shasta County commissioners, and now, the Board of Supervisors.

Fountain Wind, LLC appeal of Use Permit

We Hear You

One of the many powerful moments was when a 16-year-old Native American young woman who spoke for one minute, but what she didn’t say was profound. She asked that the remaining two minutes be used for silence to honor her ancestors who had suffered. Together she stood in solidarity with many in the audience in silence, honoring the pain, horror and affliction that the Pit River Nation has sustained over the generations. Once more, the community that once rose from the ashes of the Fountain Fire, rose for another forgotten atrocity. It was a long-overdue moment for Shasta County.

The commissioners reiterated that this was not the right project; one that would be much more harmful than beneficial in the long term. They looked at the broader picture and the lasting impacts on the county and project site for hundreds of years to come. Comments included District 1 Commission Chapin, who said, “A forested landscape is not a good location for wind turbines.

Kerns said, “This project will be detrimental to the health, safety, peace and comfort … these people have for 2.5 years demonstrated that this is the wrong project, in the wrong place… they have not been able to live in peace.”

Commissioner Walgamuth said, “I just don’t believe this is the right project … and definitely not in the right location.”

Though Wallner noted there had to be other ways to benefit the economy and bring jobs, he said, “It is difficult to support a project that does not make a lot of sense.”

Gill Wright, Vice President of Region 2 of the California Pilots Association, spoke concerning flight hazards, and found possible future sites in Whitmore and near the Western parts of Hatchet Wind using the Federal Aviation Site.

This is how he described what he witnessed:

The holistic scope of the opposition speaking was a wonder to witness. These people know their place with the land, the importance of the land as a companion resource to be nurtured and cared for, as the land cares for them. I deeply appreciate the indignation towards those who live far away seeking electricity from this location with little concern for the desecration of Shasta County resident’s lives…

The visual insult is one thing, but the combined devaluation of property and the inability of CAL FIRE to have aerial support for fire suppression would cause these homes to be uninsurable. The recent decades of fires in this region speak for themselves… [it] is not worth the cost.”

The outcome of that meeting was a historical moment that I and others in that room will never forget. First, a group of unlikely allies worked together in opposition to slay Goliath, and second, land planning commissioners were brave enough to listen and understand what is at stake: lives. More importantly, they heard voices long ignored and silenced. The commissioners could not justify adding to the exploitation of the people, resources, and scorching of the earth in the project site. They recognized the trauma this area has endured, the high-risk fire in the area, and were perhaps the first decision-makers to truly acknowledged the suffering of the Pit River Nation.

Click here to read Scorch Earth Part 1: Prevent Another Fountain Fire; Reject Fountain Wind ProjectPart 1:

Kelly Willett Tanner grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She spent many weeks in Eastern Shasta County as a child, and returned to live on the family “ranch”  five years ago. She has a M.A. in Disaster and Emergency Management and wrote her thesis on the Fountain Fire. She moved to the North State as soon as she finished her education, and started working on fire clearance around the property. She is presently a stay-at-home mom. She volunteers teaching groups around Shasta County how to be more prepared for wildfires. Kelly can be reached at kwillett2@hotmail.com

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