With elections coming up on Nov. 2, one issue looms larger than almost any other for voters in Klickitat County. The county's proposed Energy Overlay Zone (EOZ) ought to be at the top of the list when questions are directed to the candidates for County Commissioner in the various candidates' nights around the county this fall.
In short, the EOZ would overrule existing zoning and allow certain energy projects to be "permitted outright under county zoning." The EOZ would allow gas-fired, bio-mass, wind, and solar facilities to be sited within the Energy Overlay Zone without the need to go through a conditional use process.
With two seats on the three-member Board of County Commissioners on the line in this election cycle -- and with a decision on whether to proceed with the EOZ expected soon after the election -- it is imperative that the candidates make their positions clear on this controversial issue.
The EOZ is a proposal that could forever alter the character of this county. Since most of us appreciate this county as it is right now, this is not an appealing concept. In its current form, the EOZ is a bad move for the county and its citizens.
In the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the EOZ, released in September, the county assumes that as many as seven natural gas-fired plants -- of roughly the same size as the one recently completed in Goldendale -- will be built in the county in the next 20 years.
Make no mistake: That level of development would drastically change the rural nature of our county. We would in effect be turning our county over to big energy corporations -- the Enrons of the world. Is that really what our citizens want to do?
County Commissioner Don Struck had it right when he expressed concerns recently about the potential impacts of gas-fired plants. That kind of thoughtful consideration of what's at stake is encouraging.
The EOZ in itself is not necessarily a bad idea, but including gas-fired plants is. In its current form, the proposal is dangerous for several reasons.
First, it could threaten the health of area residents, and that is a risk the County Commissioners should not be taking.
From Section 126.96.36.199: "Natural gas-fired combustion turbines are sources of small amounts of toxic and hazardous air pollutants."
The county's existing conditional use permit process could allow a gas-fired plant to be sited in the county. Exhibit A is the brand new Calpine plant in Goldendale. There is no legitimate reason to simply allow them outright. Sure, it would take more effort and more time for power plant proponents to get through all the regulatory hoops if they followed the existing conditional use process, but that's precisely the way it should be. Those regulations are there for a reason -- to protect the public and allow more local oversight -- and our county should not shortchange its residents in order to allow a massive plant to be built on the fast track. That approach is reckless and unnecessary.
Second, gas-fired plants require huge amounts of water for cooling. Just where would that water come from, in an era of decreased availability of water at best, and ongoing drought conditions in the worst case? In the FEIS, in Section 1.5, the county appears to be considering undercutting existing ranching and farming operations to feed the proposed power plants: "Existing water rights are the most likely source of meeting the water needs of new development, which could reduce water available for agricultural irrigation," reads one passage.
That approach is skewed. Our farmers and ranchers should come first.
Further, if surface water is used, fisheries will suffer: "The withdrawal of water from surface water bodies could result in long-term impacts to fisheries resources," reads a passage in Section 188.8.131.52.2.
Third, the plan could threaten the community's inherent scenic attractiveness. In recent years, several communities in the county have greatly enhanced their appeal in order to draw tourists and the economic boost their spending brings. If gas plants bring industrial haze, we could be "killing the golden goose" that so many small businesses rely on.
In recent years, the county has invested -- quite wisely -- in promoting and assisting local wineries. Grape production is increasing, and the wineries are carving out a vital and lucrative economic niche while creating good jobs. But wineries and huge gas-fired plants are not likely to effectively co-exist. These power plants emit materials that are not healthy for agriculture. The visual appeal of the vineyards and the winery properties could be damaged because of increased haze, while grapes (and other crops) could suffer from acid rain conditions.
From the FEIS, Section 3.2.2: "The proposed EOZ has the potential to affect air quality in the regional airshed, including visibility in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area."
On the other hand, if the county chose to focus on the more progressive aspects of the EOZ -- solar, wind power, and bio-mass facilities (which are of a much smaller scale than the gas-fired plants and burn material that is not as hazardous) -- the county could position itself as a pioneer in alternative energy production.
With alternative energy development companies setting up shop at Bingen Point or in the Dallesport industrial park, significant job gains could be realized. Indeed, several small energy businesses focused on alternative sources would probably do a lot more for the county's economy and tax base than one colossal corporation -- no doubt with its headquarters far away -- building mammoth gas-fired plants here, which pollute the landscape while employing only a handful of technicians.
By taking this revised approach, the investment the county has made on creating the EOZ proposal would not be lost, and damaging aspects of excessive energy development could be avoided.
Citizens need to make sure they know how the four County Commission candidates -- incumbents Don Struck and Ray Thayer and challengers Pat Arnold and Steve Johnston -- would act on the EOZ proposal if they are elected. And vote accordingly.