“Is it green energy whether it has an impact on traditional cultural sites? »
Yakama Nation Tribal Councilor Jeremy Takala looked tired. For five years, tribal leaders and staff have been fighting renewable energy development that could permanently destroy tribal cultural assets. “This area, it is irreplaceable.”
The private land, outside of Goldendale, Wash., is called Pushpum, or “mother of the roots,” a first food seed bank. The Yakama people have treaty-protected assembly rights there. A ridge dotted with wind turbines, Juniper Point, is the proposed site of a pumped hydroelectric storage facility. But to build it, Boston-based Rye Development would have to cut out Pushpum — and the Yakama Nation has no realistic way to stop it.
In October 2008, unbeknownst to Takala, Scott Tillman, CEO of Golden Northwest Aluminum Corporation, met with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a collection of representatives appointed by the governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana who maintain a 20-year regional term. energy plan favoring low economic and environmental tolls. Tillman, who owned a closed Lockheed Martin aluminum smelter near Goldendale, told council about the potential for redevelopment of the brownfield site, specifically for pumped hydraulic storage, which requires a steep slope like Juniper Point to move water through a turbine. Soon after, the Klickitat County Utilities Department attempted to implement Tillman’s plan, but ran into a glitch in the federal regulatory process. That’s when Rye Development stepped in.
“We have committed at least $10 million to clean up the old aluminum smelter,” said Erik Steimle, vice president of project development at Rye, “an area that is essentially there now and that would not be cleaned in this capacity without this project.
Meanwhile, Tillman cleaned up and sold another smelter site, just across the Columbia River in The Dalles, Oregon, a Superfund site where Lockheed Martin had poisoned groundwater with cyanide. He sold it to Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which operates water-intensive data centers at The Dalles and plans to build more. For nine years, the County and Rye plotted Pushpum’s fate – never telling the Yakama Nation.
The tribal government did not learn of the development until December 2017, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a public notice of acceptance of Rye’s preliminary permit application. Tribal officials had only 60 days to catch up on nine years of development planning and voice their initial concerns and objections in the form of public comments.
At the time of government-to-government consultation in August 2021, FERC named Rye as its representative. But the Yakama Nation refused to consult the company. “The tribe treaty was between the US government and the tribe. We are two sovereigns,” said Elaine Harvey, environmental coordinator at Yakama Nation Fisheries, who has been heavily involved in the project. “We are supposed to deal with the state.”
FERC countered that the use of corporate surrogates for tribal consultation is standard practice for the commission. When the tribe objected, FERC said it could file more public comments on the record instead of consulting.
But it was culturally sensitive information that, according to Yakama tribal law, cannot be made public. Takala noted, for example, that the Yakama do not want non-Natives to harvest and market first foods in the same way that commercial pickers market blueberries: “It also impacts our people, who are trying to save for the winter. The tribe needs confidentiality to protect its cultural resources.
There’s only one catch: Rule 2201. According to FERC, Rule 2201 legally prohibits the agency from engaging in confidential communications in a contested proceeding. Records of all consultations should be made available to the public and other stakeholders, including potential developers and county officials. Who wrote Rule 2201? FERC made.
“Nevertheless,” FERC wrote to the Yakama Nation in December 2021, “the Commission strives, to the extent permitted by law, to reduce procedural barriers to direct and effective engagement with tribal governments.” FERC said the nation could either relay any sensitive information in a confidential file — although that information “must be shared with at least some participants in the proceedings” — or keep it confidential by simply not sharing it at all, in which case FERC would. proceed regardless. The official federal consultation has therefore still not taken place. But FERC is still moving forward.
“It’s important that First Nations are heard in this process,” said Steimle, the proponent. During a two-hour site visit, he argued the technical merits of the project and its role in meeting the state’s carbon goals. “If you look at Europe at this point, we probably have 20 years left to integrate large amounts of renewables.”
Steimle has repeatedly described Rye as being weighed down by rigorous consultation and licensing processes. Rye, he said, lacks real authority: “We don’t have the power in the situation to ultimately decide, you know, it’s going to be this technology, or it’s going to be in this final location.” Becky Brun, director of communications at Rye, echoed Steimle’s inevitable tone: “Regardless of what happens here with this pumped storage project, this land will most definitely be redeveloped into something.”
When asked what Rye could offer the Yakama people in compensation for the irreversible destruction of their cultural assets, Steimle suggested “jobs associated with the project.”
Takala was not surprised. “It’s always the first thing offered on a lot of these projects. It’s all about the money.”
Presented with the reality that the people of Yakama might not want Rye’s jobs, Steimle balked. “Yeah, I mean, I can’t argue with that – maybe it won’t make sense to them.”
But for Klickitat County, the jobs talk is working: it’s a chance to revive the jobs lost when the smelter closed. “It was one of the largest employers in Klickitat County – very good family jobs for more than a generation,” said Dave Sauter, a longtime county commissioner who completed his last term at the end of of 2022. Closing the smelter was “a huge blow,” he says. “Redevelopment of this site would be really beneficial.”
Sauter acknowledged that the pumped hydroelectric storage facility would provide only about a third of the jobs the smelter provided in its final days, but “it will lead to other energy developments in Klickitat County.” The county, with its armada of aging wind turbines and proximity to the hydroelectric grid, prides itself on being one of the greenest energy producers in the state and has asked FERC for an accelerated schedule.
Klickitat County’s eagerness creates another obstacle for the Yakama Nation. In Washington, a developer can take one of two licensing routes: through the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council or through county channels. Both lead to FERC. In this case, working with the county benefits Rye: Klickitat, a Republican-majority county, has a contentious relationship with the Yakama Nation, one that even Sauter called “difficult.”
“Klickitat County refuses to work with us,” Takala said. On September 19, 2022, Harvey logged into a Zoom meeting with the Klickitat County Planning Department to provide his comments as a private citizen. Harvey says county officials, who know her from her work with the Yakama Nation, locked her out of the Zoom room, even though the meeting was open to the public and a friend of hers confirmed that the call was working and the meeting was in progress. Undeterred, Harvey attended in person and delivered his comments.
The planning department denied that Harvey was deliberately locked out, saying anyone who arrived on Zoom was admitted. They also said they were having technical difficulties.
The Fighting Rye proposal required the efforts of tribal lawyers, archaeologists, and government personnel from a number of departments. “It’s very difficult to find the staff to locate the site when we don’t have the funds,” Takala said.
And Rye’s project is just one of dozens proposed in the Yakama Nation’s 10 million-acre treaty territory. Maps from the Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife show that of the 51 wind and solar projects currently proposed across the state – not counting geothermal or pumped hydroelectric storage projects, which are also developments of renewable energy – at least 34 are on or partially on the Yakama Nation’s ceded lands. Each of these proposals has its own constellation of developers, permitting agencies, government officials and landowners.
“There are so many proposed projects in the region that we here at home are feeling the pressure,” Takala said. He noted that when it comes to fulfilling its obligations to the tribes, the United States drags its feet. “But when it comes to a developer, things move very quickly. It’s pretty much a story repeating itself all over again.