Magic Valley Uprising

How an Idaho citizens’ coalition gunned down a dirty power plant — and what it means for the West

  • The West's New Revolutionaries

    Michael Wickes, Ray Ring

Page 3


The prospect of Sempra’s coal plant, with its 650-foot-tall smokestack and piles of coal and waste ash, was just too much. No fewer than five grassroots groups sprang up to oppose it. Their members included local Republican politicians, real estate agents, dairymen and trout farmers, along with most of the local doctors, and two former coal-plant managers who had retired to the valley.

The opponents found plenty of ammo. Sempra, reminiscent of Enron, had recently agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle charges that it manipulated the energy market in California. Pollution from its Idaho plant, including a potpourri of heavy metals, would have drifted across southern Idaho as far away as Yellowstone National Park. Rainfall could have washed the pollution into the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, the water supply for the Magic Valley’s businesses and homes (HCN, 6/13/05: Idaho gets smart about water). And the valley already has water problems: Some of its supply is tainted by naturally occurring arsenic. Children and pregnant women have been advised not to eat the fish in local reservoirs, because of mercury pollution believed to drift in from Nevada gold mines (HCN, 8/8/05: The Great Salt Lake's dirty little secret).

So many people expressed such a range of concerns about the coal plant that influential Republican legislators began to pay heed. "I’m not an environmentalist — I’ve fought ’em all my life over grazing (on federal land)," says Terry Hall, who runs a small farm and ranch a couple of miles from the Sempra site. "But this coal plant, I just don’t think we need it. It’s just a money-hungry (company) coming in here that wants to do it."

Although a few professional environmentalists helped in the campaign, they kept discreetly in the background. The man who emerged as the opposition leader, longtime Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb, a Magic Valley farmer, wanted it that way. "Newcomb’s marching orders were, ‘Do not let the (environmental) activists own this. You’ve got to mainstream this,’ " says one insider who asked not to be named.

Rep. Newcomb introduced House Bill 791, and a bipartisan effort propelled it through the Legislature. Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed the bill into law April 7. It imposes a two-year moratorium on any proposals for conventional coal-fired power plants in Idaho.

Many residents hope the state will use this two-year time-out to devise new regulations on coal plants, including a statewide siting authority. There’s also hope for more emphasis on renewable energy sources, such as wind power. Another new law, pushed by the coal-plant’s opponents, requires Idaho to study energy issues and come up with a comprehensive plan for developing appropriate new sources of power.

Sempra obviously saw which way the wind was blowing. The day the Idaho Senate passed the two-year moratorium, the company abandoned its Magic Valley proposal. Facing opposition to coal plants in other states, and uncertainty about its ability to sell coal power, it has decided to concentrate all of its operations in relatively clean-burning natural gas. The company says it will try to sell its Magic Valley studies and prep work to another energy company. But conventional wisdom says that, although the company invested $20 million here, there will be no buyers.

Idahoans have rejected the old anti-regulation philosophy, at least temporarily. But the state has not suddenly become Ecotopia.

"Sempra is an easy move for Republicans (in the Legislature) who are anti-regulation," says Rick Foster, a political science professor at Idaho State University. "They can say, ‘We’re not really trying to regulate business, except where it’s really an egregious issue.’ "

No doubt, Idaho’s Republican Party has selfish motives. Gov. Kempthorne has recently been nominated to be Bush’s new Interior secretary, and there’s a credible Democratic candidate to replace him: Jerry Brady, whose family runs the Idaho Falls Post-Register. Brady won 42 percent of the vote when he ran for the governorship in 2002. This time around, Brady quickly made the merchant coal plant his issue, speaking out against it in Magic Valley venues such as Rotary Club.

The power-plant fight "sparked a tremendous amount of interest in Brady’s campaign, even among Republican (voters)," Laird Noh says. "Any candidate running on the Republican ticket, statewide or in local races, would really like to get this (coal plant) issue off the table" before the November elections.

But even selfish motives can lead to progress. And there is convincing evidence that Idaho is going through a fundamental shift. More than 90 percent of Idahoans wanted their governor and Legislature to "deal with energy policy issues in the next year," according to a statewide poll conducted in December by Jim Weatherby, director of Boise State University’s Public Policy Center. Sixty-two percent want to take power-plant siting out of the hands of county governments. Idahoans have clear ideas about the most desirable sources of power. The top five, in order, are wind, solar, hydro dams, geothermal, and biomass. Coal-fired power plants rank at the bottom of the list. Sixty-two percent of Idahoans are willing to pay higher electricity rates to encourage development of renewable power generation.