An image from the county’s Draft Environmental Impact Report, showing a turbine blade on the back of a long-bed truck, reveals the massive scale of the type of wind turbines proposed for mountain ridges south of Scotia.

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The Humboldt Wind Energy Project has proved to be the most significant and controversial infrastructure proposal for Humboldt County in recent memory.

This $300 million project from New York-based renewable energy firm Terra-Gen would see 47 massive wind turbines installed on private property atop Bear River Ridge and Monument Ridge south of Scotia. 

The past two Thursday night meetings of the Humboldt County Planning Commission have seen massive crowds (by local government standards, anyway), with people waiting two, three, even four hours or more for their turn at the microphone.

The public hearing will continue tonight, starting at 4 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors chambers of the county courthouse, and there’s a good chance the Planning Commission will make a decision. The commission has three options:

  1. approve the conditional use permit (CUP) and special permit required for the project
  2. approve the permits while requiring additional mitigation measures, or
  3. deny the permits.

Regardless of which way the commission goes, its decision is almost certain to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, meaning the impassioned community debate will continue.

Historically, the political fault lines on development projects in Humboldt County have been drawn between environmentalists and the pro-development/business community, but in the case of the Humboldt Wind Energy Project, environmentalists are split. 

Critics point to the significant, unavoidable impacts identified in the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which notes that over the project’s 30-year lifespan the turbines will probably kill a number of birds and bats, including about eight marbled murrelets, a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Another unavoidable impact is the view of the 600-foot-tall turbines, which will be visible from miles away and include nighttime lights as required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Many public speakers have said they stand in solidarity with the Wiyot Tribe, which opposes the project on a variety of grounds, foremost among them that Tsakiyuwit  — the tribe’s name for Bear River Ridge — is a sacred place historically used for high prayer. 

Proponents, meanwhile, point to the mounting evidence that our planet is now engulfed in a full-blown climate crisis that demands industrial-scale solutions such as this project. These supporters acknowledge that there will be negative impacts with the Terra-Gen project but argue that such costs are outweighed by the environmental benefits. 

That’s the exact question facing county officials: whether the project’s significant, unavoidable impacts, as defined by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), constitute a price worth paying in exchange for what we stand to gain.

Terra-Gen estimates that the wind farm will generate 155 megawatts of clean, renewable energy, preventing 372,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of removing 80,000 cars from the road. 

Nathan Vajdos, the company’s senior director of wind development, says the wind farm would also provide up to 300 jobs during construction and 15 permanent jobs while generating millions of dollars in tax revenue for the county, including $76 million in property taxes and nearly $8 million in sales taxes over the life of the project. 

Judging by the public debate, it’s the environmental considerations that take precedence. 

“It is very difficult to exaggerate the threat climate change poses to the ecosystems we are fighting to protect and restore,” local environmental group Friends of the Eel River (FOER) stated in its recent newsletter. “Simply put, we must move forward with any and every potentially significant source of renewable energy as long as it doesn’t really mess up things we cannot lose.”

The EIR lays out a wide array of mitigation measures designed to offset the project’s negative impacts, but FOER says regulators need to take even more steps to protect the environment. If they do, “then FOER views the proposed project not only as feasible and defensible, but as necessary, indeed urgent.”

It’s clear from FOER’s public statement that the group had a hard time deciding which side to come down on. Other environmental organizations have obviously wrestled with the choice, too, but have largely arrived at the opposite conclusion: urging the county to reject the project. 

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) has argued that the project site is inappropriate while pressuring the county to strengthen mitigation efforts.

Earlier this week the group said on its website, “Our goal has been — and this has not been without controversy from many of our friends both in favor of the project and opposed — to avoid, minimize and compensate for impacts to the maximum extent possible under the law. … As a result of EPIC and other’s participation, some meaningful project changes have occurred — yet still not enough to satisfy our expectations.”

Public speakers at the recent Planning Commission meetings have been similarly split. Many — on both sides of the issue — have characterized the decision as a no-brainer. Emboldened by a purity of purpose, these folks have often laid into the Planning Commission with sweeping pleas and grand hyperbole.

Taken collectively, the public’s response reveals the significance of both the project itself and the larger issues at play, from our history of native genocide to our impacts on the natural world.

Want to weigh in on this community debate? Here are they key details on tonight’s meeting:

  • What: Humboldt County Planning Commission meeting regarding the Humboldt Wind Energy Project, Conditional Use Permit and Special Permit.
  • Where: Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Chambers, 825 Fifth Street, Eureka.
  • When: Thursday, November 21, at 4 p.m.

A wealth of information, including the Final Environmental Impact Report and links to all submitted comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report, can be found on the county’s webpage for this project.

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