By Miriam Raftery
January 11, 2012 (Boulevard)–Retired tugboat captain Don Renard worked hard all his life before purchasing a little piece of heaven in San Diego’s rural East County. He bought a historic house, the former Ruby Store, once a stage coach stop in Boulevard. He and his family have been working to restore it—in between savoring quiet times spent watching the hawks, owls and song birds among the old oak groves around their home.
But there’s a squall of epic proportions on the horizon. Soon, the Renard family’s home is slated to be surrounded by an industrial solar “farm”—on all four sides. In every direction, 360 degrees, massive panels 30 feet high or so will track the sun. Some will be just 300 feet from his doorstep.
“Why aim 1,500 panels at our house?” says Renard. Ironically, he chose to move to Boulevard because this community’s general plan prohibited industrial development or even dense housing. He had every reason to believe the open spaces that he cherishes—riparian waterways, shady groves of trees, open meadows—would be preserved.
Iberdrola, developer of Tule Wind, successfully fought to remove significant protections in Boulevard’s Community Plan during the County’s General Plan Update–changes that made it easier to build massive energy projects. Supervisors approved those changes in August 2011, tossing out years of planning by Boulevard residents. Those changes appall the vast majority of those who live in this quiet rural community.
But even more changes lie ahead. Boulevard Community Plan amendments are proposed in the County’s Wind Energy Ordinance and Soitec’s Programmatic EIR for the company’s four projects planned in Boulevard. The changes would remove protections and allow big wind and solar projects to be built next to homes, livestock, sensitive habitat and other resources even though the area is not zoned for commercial or industrial development.
Supervisors and Planning Commissioners for the County are also considering zoning the area as a renewable energy resource zone. Astoundingly, the proposed amendment claims reneawble energy projects such as wind and solar are not considered “industrial-scale projects or facilities” for the Community Plan. Those changes align with the federal government’s plan to turn the region into an “energy corridor” – a designation made in Washington D.C. , far from the places that will be impacted.
This energy corridor is to include three massive new wind farms in the Boulevard Planning Group’s jurisdiction – Iberdrola’s Tule Wind, Invenergy’s Shu’luuk, and Enel’s Jewel Valley – slated to cover thousands and thousands of acres. A fourth is planned just south of the border and a fifth, Ocotillo Wind, is nearing completion east of here, impacting habitat shared by local bighorn sheep. That’s in addition to the existing Kumeyaay wind facility on adjacent tribal land. There are also numerous industrial solar facilities being pushed forward in the Boulevard area encompassing thousands more acres—overwhelming a small town that prides itself on its rural backcountry character.
“I don’t know of any community facing this many energy projects,” Donna Tisdale, Chair, Boulevard Planning Group Chair, told ECM during a tour of the proposed sites. She contends that big energy companies are preying on low-income communities that can’t afford to fight back; 58% to 65% of the children in Clover Flat and Jacumba schools are from socio-economically disadvantaged families.
“There’s nothing altruistic about this,” Renard says. “This is about taking as much government money as they can and turning it into personal profit.”
He is referring to federal tax credits for large-scale renewable energy projects—the “green” cash incentives luring giant corporations such as BP, Iberdrola and the Carlyle Group to invest in alternative energy projects on a massive scale.
But who is looking out for the rights of residents in the path of those projects? Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Congressman Duncan Hunter, former Congressman Bob Filner and Boulevard’s Planning Group are all on record opposing Tule Wind, the largest of the industrial energy facilities planned here. But that wasn’t enough to stop the federal government and the County Board of Supervisors’ majority from approving it, though state and tribal land approvals are still pending.
Tule Wind will despoil McCain Valley, sacred to Native Americans, settled by pioneers, and long a recreational favorite for people across the Southwest for its spectacular scenic visits. On federal Bureau of Land Management property, it is also the gateway to three federal wilderness regions. Do a hundred or more skyscraper-height turbines really belong here, towering over campgrounds and pristine views of this boulder-studded terrain?
Turbines will also be visible at Carrizo Gorge, a place known as “our Grand Canyon” to locals. It’s rugged terrain, where the explorer De Anza and the Spanish army once marched, a place where Lost Rock served as a sentinel landmark guiding Native American tribes in their seasonal migrations, as well as later pioneers.
Other projects are in various stages of application. No one at the higher levels of government seems to be looking at the cumulative impacts of multiple energy projects on communities like Boulevard.
Renard, like many here, is not opposed to renewable energy. He wants to see solar along the border, where the land is already scarred by a border fence and roads. Besides loss of views and open space, he worries about the impacts of electromagnetic radiation from inverters at the solar facilities, and how that may affect the health of his high school-age daughter, other family members, and even the family dog. Tisdale is a board member of Protect Our Communities Foundation, which has donated $30,000 to the San Diego Energy Foundation to help develop an energy cooperative as an alternative to SDG&E–buying power from rooftop and parking lot solar, not destructive projects in rural and scenic areas.
Touring the rural backroads of Boulevard, the transformation slated to take place is mind-boggling. If all proposed projects are built, towering 500 foot tall turbines will line both sides of Canebreak Road. Each will be taller than the highest skyscraper in downtown San Diego, with a wingspan the size of a football field.
One of the proposed wind facilities is Shu’luuk Wind, Invenergy’s project on Native American lands owned by the Campo tribe. The federal environmental impact statement on Shu’luuk wind was released today: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-01-11/html/2013-00439.htm
The Campo tribe operates the area’s existing Kumeyaay wind facility – with turbines much smaller than the new giants proposed. But some of Campo’s existing turbines are very near homes–and residents living near them complain of serious health impacts that they believe are related to infrasound and stray voltage—voltage measured at 1,000 times higher than normal in their tribal hall, homes, and church. Stray voltage can travel through the air or through the ground, entering homes through plumbing pipes or powerlines.
Campo built its turbines so close to the boundary of the Manzanita Indian reservation that blade flicker shadows the Manzanita tribal hall, where the thumping and whirring of turbine blades is a near-constant presence. View a video provided by a community member: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5RCciotwIY&feature=youtu.be
“In the tribal hall, two women were talking on their phones and a blue arc went between them,” Tisdale says. Pointing to a house about a quarter-mile from the turbines, she adds, “That woman just had part of her kidney removed.” A neighbor has suffered from sinus and ear problems, chronic fatigue, intestinal disorders, and “her well kept shorting out,” Tisdale adds.
Manzanita tribal members have been accepted into a California State University San Marcos health study to confirm whether cases of cancer and other illnesses are caused by the turbines, as an epidemiologist who measured the stray voltage believes. But even some residents far off the reservation claim to be negatively impacted. Don Bonfiglio, who lives three miles away, has written that he is kept awake by turbines. He has also stated that he witnesses a dozen slaughtered large raptors being placed in a golf cart for disposal after they were killed by the wind turbines at Campo.
My own ear throbs and hurts near turbines in the Campo area, easing as I move farther away. We turn onto a road leading through the La Posta reservation. A La Posta tribal member who was exposed to turbines both at home and work said they were “making her crazy,” Tisdale noted.
Tribal members are skittish about talking to media, since tribes including Manzanita are in negotiations to build wind farms of their own—and some members have been threatened with disenrollment from the tribe if they speak to the press. So planning officials tell their stories third hand; ECM has verified some independently through sources who have asked that their names not be disclosed.
There are even turbines planned directly behind the Indian Health Clinic in Campo, the very same clinic where people may go to seek treatment for symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome and EMF exposure. Turbines will mar views of a historic high railway trestle over Highway 94, an iconic icon in East County.
As Planning Group Chair, Tisdale is overwhelmed by the massive task of submitting comments to the massive projects, such as Shu’luuk Wind; the Environmental Impact Report for the project is due to be published January 11.
“They are asking for ex parte approval of a gen-tie project for Shu’luuk,” Tisdale said, shaking her head. They are calling it fire hardening—replacing wood poles with steel.”
In late summer, the Shockey Fire burned a destructive swatch through Boulevard, charring thousands of acres, burning 14 homes and 11outbuildings, and claiming the life of an elderly resident. Many more properties had damage, and residents here have more than enough to handle as they work to rebuild their homes and lives.
Cal Fire retired battalion chief Mark Ostrander, who lives in Jacumba, has warned that firefighters won’t be able to stop a wildfire that starts in a wind farm here –since fire drops must be made at 150 feet and the turbines are 500 feet tall, with blades extended. Over 190 fires have been caused by wind turbines, including two wildfires in California this summer. Each turbine contains over 200 gallons of flammable lubricating oil. Their height attracts lightning strikes. Turbines have also been known to malfunction and explode.
If firefighters couldn’t stop the Shockey Fire on a day with only moderate winds and no other wildfires burning, how can they be expected to prevent loss of life and property from an inferno at a wind farm? These are remote areas, where it takes time for fire trucks to access—if they arrive at all.
Tisdale’s Morningstar Ranch was among the properties scorched, though her home survived. Like many self-sufficient backcountry residents, she stayed to fight the fire herself, saving her son’s home next door. Firefighters didn’t reach her ranch in time, though they did save many other homes in Boulevard. The fire charred chaparral and wildlife habitat, killing many animals found charred at Tisdale’s ranch and others.
Tisdale doesn’t ask for much from her government. She just wants to be left alone—but instead, her community has been invaded by carpet-bagger-like energy corporations—and her elected officials at the county , state and federal levels have thus far been unable or unwilling to halt the onslaught.
A solar energy farm is planned across the street from her ranch. Developers claim the project won’t cause distracting glare. But photos Tisdale has taken of similar Soitec panels tracking the sun that suggest otherwise. She also questions if motorists on historic Highway 80 may be distracted by the glare. Despite the historic designation, the highway is slated to be lined by multiple solar farms, both in Boulevard and neighboring Jacumba. Tisdale also worries about stray voltage reaching her 300-acre family ranch. “There are groundwater fractures that connect us,” she says, noting that electricity travels through water.
Her neighbor and fellow planning group member, Melody Ponchot, used to live near the Campo turbines. She moved away after developing severe health problems, which resolved after she found a new home. But now that ranch is threatened, too, by the big wind and solar projects slated to invade the neighobrhood. Ponchot worries about her health, and the impacts on wildlife, as well as the loss of the pastoral views that drew her to this rural area. She sent us photos of her ranch, blanketed in a snowy coat, little changed since the first settlers arrived.
Virtually every resident of Boulevard will be affected, looking at either wind turbines or fields of solar panels, or both. Some will be close enough to suffer potential health problems from stray voltage and infrasound—low frequency sound waves that you can’t hear, but that can cause harm, since they travel through flesh and bone. There are also nuisance aspects to the projects – flashing lights on every turbine, glare from solar panels, and noise.
In nearby Ocotillo, residents complain they can’t sleep at night due to nearly 100 flashing red lights all night long, and during the day there’s little respite, since blade shadow flicker is also present. In Hardscrabble New York, 60 neighbors of Iberdrola’s wind farm are suing noise experts for falsely predicting the project would comply with noise regulations. It doesn’t.
“Developers come into our planning group meeting and lie through their teeth, or just don’t have answers,” Tisdale says. Citing one example, she recalls asking a solar developer, “When you dump an electrical load, where does it go? He said it doesn’t go anywhere. That’s not true.”
The federal government has officially designated this area of East County as an energy corridor. That designation was made without consulting those who live here. Without a vote of its people or planners or elected officials.
“This is going to impact our entire town and several tribal reservations, also Jacumba and Ocotillo,” Tisdale observes, adding that 40,000 acres of productive farmland in nearby Imperial County is also being converted to solar. “Nobody is listening. Where is the evidence that this is going to be safe for people living here?”
There are about 1500 people in the Boulevard planning group whose lives will never be the same if these projects are built. Counting Jacumba, Ocotillo, and tribal lands, several thousand residents will be impacted. That doesn’t count the many thousands of campers and outdoor enthusiasts who will lose recreational opportunities in McCain Valley—federal Bureau of Land Management property, gateway to three wilderness, where Tule Wind is set to destroy spectacular views and encroach just 900 feet from campgrounds.
Residents here want to know why density laws have been tossed out for their rural area. “SOIITEC solar will have the density of 48 Walmart Supercenters,” Tisdale says of yet another project. That’s over 88 million acres.” Some houses and livestock are just a few feet away. At a hilltop near historic High Pass camp, at least four big energy projects will be visible in every direction. “You can’t get away from it,” says Tisdale, who is also saddened by the loss from the fire. “IT makes you grieve to see everything burned.”
Yet the land can restore itself from fire, given enough years. It can never recover from blowing up boulders, bulldozing the earth and filling holes hundreds of feet wide with concrete turbine foundations, or clear-cutting the land for solar “farms.” Not only is the terrain permanently destroyed, but so are Native American cultural resources—sacred sites, burial grounds, artifacts and more.
Each big project also includes communications and microwave transmissions, and high voltage lines, some carrying 138,000 volts. Living near transmission lines has been linked to high rates of leukemia and other illnesses. But what happens when there’s not just one set of lines, but many? Along with thousands and thousands of acres surrounding the town and on seemingly every vacant piece of land, all covered with electrical-generating solar and wind machines? Each turbine will be nearly three times taller than Sunrise Powerlink.
Historically there were wild horses here. Bighorn sheep have been seen in the valley, including very recently. Powerlink stopped construction when bighorn were present. Yet the federal government delisted the area as critical bighorn sheep habitat when the wind project was proposed for McCain Valley. The same thing happened in Ocotillo, where take permits authorizing killing of endangered bighorn were issued by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior after photos proving presence of sheep on the site were revealed.
Take permits for golden eagles are also expected to be issued in East County, which appalls residents who want to see wildlife protected, not destroyed. If anyone else killed an eagle, it’s a felony crime with large fines and jail time. But if you’re a wind developer, you can slaughter them with turbines and face no penalty whatsoever.
Theresa Renard, daughter of Don Renard, says her family has been striving to get a historic designation for their home. “It’s over 90 years old,” she says of the former Ruby Store, on the site of the town’s original stage coach stop. Some solar panels tracking the sun, 30 feet tall, will be just 300 feet from her door, on all four sides. She worries about erosion and the destruction of riparian waterways, habitat for the many wild birds flitting among the trees during our visit. The Renards say that they’ve seen golden eagles foraging here, and a large owl lives in a dead oak tree that they’ve decided not to cut—but which the solar development is likely to destroy.
“There is no place to hide,” Don Renard says. “I feel like they’re aiming a cannon at us….They say they’ll mitigate the glare. How?” He also fears for the water table, recalling time spent during the Peace Corps in Swaziland on land ravaged by development that drained the water. “They cut down old growth trees that hold water,” he said.
Pointing east and west of his property to now dormant meadows, he observes, “When we get a lot of rain, that’s a river. I think of this piece of ground as an island. This is a riverbed. Where’s all that drainage going to go?” Up here, several inches of rain in an afternoon have been known to fall, he adds. He’s also found artifacts on his property dating back to the pioneer era and possibly even earlier in this area once occupied by Spanish rancheros, including hand-made nails.
“Once they destroy it, it’s destroyed forever,” he says of his little piece of heaven. “This is green alternative energy? They’re killing every living thing.”
Nearby, a homebuyer sued the property seller after learning that the planned solar facilities nearby had not been disclosed. Now he’s gone – a valued new community member who had even served briefly on the planning group.
Tisdale has seen a sneak preview of what’s in store for her community, having visited Ocotillo numerous times during construction of the wind project there. The area turned into a dust bowl (photo, left) due to scraping the earth bare. Despite 100 resident complaints including videos of blinding dust storms, the project monitor –paid by the developer—never recorded a single dust problem.
People’s yards were flooded with a flammable chemical used for dust suppression. Roads were graded three times wider than the EIR allowed. Residents complaints of noise and flashing lights were ignored. After the project was built, signs went up discouraging off-roaders from enjoying roads they had long travelled.
“If you’re a bulldozer, you can go off road,” Ocotillo resident Jim Pelley says derisively. His home is surrounded on three sides by 500-foot-tall turbines obliterating his once pristine desert and mountains view.
Nor has restoration been achieved as promised. Not even at work yards abandoned a year ago by SDG&E after its Sunrise Powerlink construction. A sign (photo, right) warns the public to keep out of a restoration area, where a few dead or near-dead ocotillo sticks in the ground don’t appear to have succeeded in restoring century-old ocotillo groves mowed down for Powerlink, nor at a similar restoration area hastily planted at the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility.
“There’s no cop on the beat,” Tisdale says of what happened in Ocotillo-and will likely happen here, particularly in McCain Valley, also on BLM land. “It’s like the wild West—they do whatever they want to do.”
Before the County tossed Boulevard’s community plan out the window, this area used to be zoned for a maximum of one house per every 80 acres. But in the blink of an eye, historically speaking, the protections enshrined in law for this region have been obliterated.
Boulevard is one of the few areas in San Diego County with even fair to moderate wind resources. But virtually the entire county has strong solar resources—making anyplace with open land a prime candidate for massive-scale energy development.
Unquestionably the needs to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and develop energy independence are imperative. Just this week, the National Climatic Center announced that 2012 was the hottest year on record, fueling arguments for bold steps to address climate change.
But is clearcutting and bulldozing forests, deserts, and wildlife habitat or surrounding communities with massive energy projects that impact health and community character really necessary? People here want to know why the government only subsidizes big energy companies, instead of just giving money to homeowners and businesses to put solar on their roofs or in parking lots in already urbanized areas. They believe projects should be in scale with the surroundings — many here own windmills–the old fashioned kind–to power their wells, but don’t want skyscraper-scale wind monsters obliterating cherished views.
Out here, people bristle at the term “NIMBY.” Not in my backyard. Why shouldn’t homeowners have the right to protect their homes and towns? Since when did taking pride in your community and seeking to preserve rural values became a derisive term? Many here also qusetion whyso many energy projects are being foisted in anybody’s backyard–and why the energy companies prey on low-income communities that can’t afford the hefty legal fees to fight back.
But even those who have filed lawsuits against the Ocotillo project found themselves blocked by judges who refused to issue restraining ordres, refused even to allow opponents to be heard in court before allowing the destruction of the desert to be completed.
No one here ever imagined that mandates of the state and federal government, combined with a vote of the majority of Supervisors over objections of residents, could forever change the character of Boulevard from rural to industrial.
If this can happen to Boulevard–and to Ocotillo–it can happen to your community, too.
“I hope I survive,” the beleaguered Tisdale concludes.
( photo of Donna Tisdale at top of page courtesy East County Magazine )