Father Hugh Feiss
Father Hugh Feiss is one of the 15 Benedictine monks who have vowed to spend their lives at the Monastery of the Ascension, about five miles from the butte where Sempra wanted to build its coal plant. He believes the coal plant conflicts with Christian principles of stewardship, as laid out in a 2001 pastoral letter by the Catholic bishops of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana (HCN, 3/12/01: Priests preach to the choir: Protect the Columbia). Feiss helped launch the Magic Valley uprising with public meetings at a local church in the fall of 2005.
"My concerns are religious-based: respect for Creation, an understanding of common good, the duty to future generations, and the responsibility of citizens to act on that. But they’re sharable with other people. … At the weekly meetings in the parish, we had ranchers, retired schoolteachers, a few other people. We brought in speakers on energy policy, agency folks, and a parish member who used to run coal plants. We were trying to inform ourselves, and talking about strategies. This is an alliance of folks that, in most other cases, would be at each other’s throats. It’s quite remarkable."
Carl Nellis, who has a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology, retired in 2000 after 28 years with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He began attending Father Feiss’ meetings, then founded Citizens for Resource Protection, one of the five grassroots groups that battled Sempra.
"Sempra did a mailing to everyone in Jerome County, a color brochure, slick, talking about jobs, the other economic benefits, and how they won’t pollute, they’ll be good neighbors. They ran newspaper ads, too. They use black type on a green background, of course — like they’re a green company. It’s all about image, or deception. In fact, there are lots of better sources of energy than coal, and we don’t absolutely need the power. It’s a merchant plant that would sell to the highest bidder."
Sylvia Dille grew up on her family’s farm, about a mile from the Sempra site. Her mother and brothers still live there. She works as a music teacher in a local elementary school. She voted for George W. Bush for president in 2000 and 2004, but regrets it, because of his environmental policies.
"I am not an activist-type person. It’s very personal for me. If a coal plant goes in, my mother’s property will be worthless. The grazing and farmland would be zoned heavy industrial and it would change the dynamics forever. My father’s ashes are on the desert where the ashes from that plant would settle. Sempra would desecrate that land. … The Bush agenda for the West is to use all of our resources the cheapest way possible."
Terry Ganguet, head of the Jerome County Farm Bureau, conducted a survey and found that two-thirds of the more than 800 members don’t want the coal plant. Ganguet (shown here with wife Jan) runs cattle and grows alfalfa on 520 acres, about five miles from the proposed site. He worries about pollution contaminating his crops and water supply.
"Sempra said that its stack would put out 100 to 160 pounds of mercury per year, and half would come down as far away as Yellowstone National Park, and the rest would settle nearby, in the Magic Valley. In the valley, the snowfall and rain would take it right down to the aquifer. There’s sinkholes everywhere out there in the desert (in the porous lava rock) — standing water just disappears. And there would be mountains of waste ash sitting over the aquifer. I just want to protect what I have."
Gale Kleinkopf, a retired University of Idaho potato scientist, served 17 years on the Twin Falls city council, including a stint as mayor. A Republican, he voted for George W. Bush for president in 2000. "Lack of regulation is part of the quality of life" in Idaho, he says, but that doesn’t mean Idahoans don’t want to protect their air and water.
"When things are good, we let them remain that way. When issues arise, we react a little slowly, but we react well. … The coal plant would sit directly over the source of drinking water for the city of Twin Falls. If they burn 7,000 tons of coal per day, that would put 12,000 pounds of arsenic (per day) into the air or into their waste piles. It’s highly probable there would be arsenic pollution, and the city might have to spend $20 million for a water filtration plant. … Southern Idaho’s population is growing at 4 percent per year. So a hundred (power plant) jobs is no big deal to us. Our agricultural base has served us well, and will continue to do so. We have no reason to put it at risk."
Bonny Ross shares ownership of Canyonside Realty, the Magic Valley’s biggest real-estate firm, which employs nearly 70 agents. She has been president of the Idaho Association of Realtors and the Jerome Chamber of Commerce. She testified twice in legislative hearings, saying that the valley’s economic future lies in attracting high-tech businesses and affluent migrants, not in a coal-fired power plant.
"When I came out against the coal plant, it was the first time I’d done anything like that, and it carried some weight. We have a very healthy, diversifying economy, and we can be selective about the kinds of businesses we bring in. ... A lot of the people buying the new high-end homes are from places like California and Oregon and Seattle, and they come for the clean air, the clean water, and the quality of life. I think we’re beginning to understand, we have something precious here."
Bob Naerebout, head of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, represents more than 700 dairies, which sold $1.4 billion worth of raw milk last year. The dairymen worry that pollution from new coal plants might interact with their operations’ ammonia emissions, resulting in Clean Air Act crackdowns on both industries. Coal-plant pollution might also get into the milk, Naerebout says, and stray voltage from major new power lines might disrupt the cows’ production. The association wants more emphasis on renewable energy sources, including methane digesters fueled by the manure of Idaho’s 380,000 dairy cows.
"The major issue (with the coal-plant proposal) was the total lack of information about how it affects the community. A lot of people want to know what the impacts would be — we need unbiased, independent studies, before deciding. I think it challenges all of us to think more deeply about the energy needs, what our policies are, and where we need to go, as a state. It’s a very good discussion."
David Barneby spent 35 years working for energy companies in Nevada and California. His résumé includes engineering and high-level executive positions, including managing four big coal-fired plants. He retired in 2001 and moved to Twin Falls, where he does volunteer work. He prepared a detailed list of questions that Idahoans need to answer before deciding whether to allow the state’s first big coal-fired plant. He wants the state to consider enacting emissions limits tougher than federal rules, and warns that coal plants typically cause many kinds of pollution that escape regulation, including "heavy metal gaseous compounds … beyond mercury," fly ash emissions, and waste fluids from scrubbing off pollution residues in the smokestacks. A few excerpts from his seven-page paper:
"Stacks, even after extensive emissions controls are applied, can still create a localized rain of acid droplets. … (And) how closely does Idaho want to regulate dust from storage piles, cooling towers, rail car unloading, conveyor belt transfer points, coal piles, (and) coal cars passing through the state? … Ponds for storage … of liquid and sludge and solid waste are almost essential for coal-fired plants. My experience tells me that all ponds either leak immediately ... or they eventually will. … Leakage detection, collection and mitigation systems are essential. … Are (state agencies) adequately staffed and supported to accomplish their tasks? … Should Idaho taxpayers be required to fund these activities?"
Laird Noh, a Magic Valley sheep rancher, is one of Idaho’s homegrown experts on energy policy. He served as a Republican legislator from 1981 to 2004, most of that time as chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee. Now he’s on the steering committee of the Citizens to Keep Magic Valley Magic, another of the groups that battled Sempra.
"Legislators turn over so rapidly, only a few have been involved in these energy issues enough to really understand. It’s a foreign language, people don’t know what an unregulated power plant is and how it works. … Suddenly we have major economic interests that have been motivated to keep regulations at a minimum, waking up to the fact that, by inviting other polluters into the area, it could affect their future. That’s one of the ironies. On the other hand, the dairy industry is also growing up. They’ve hired more moderate, thoughtful leadership, and are moving ahead more aggressively to deal with their bad actors."
This story is a sidebar to the feature:
An unusual grassroots coalition of citizen activists stops a coal-fired merchant power plant from being built in Idaho’s Magic Valley