WA clean energy project collides with major Yakama site

Every spring, families from the Yakama Nation head to Pushpum, a towering ridge above the John Day Dam in Klickitat County. There, on the south-facing slope dotted with junipers, herbs and shrubs, they gather Indian celery, one of the first food plants of the season.

“It’s really important first food assembly area,” said Elaine Harvey, environmental coordinator for Yakama Nation Fisheries and a member of the Kamiltpah Band. “It is our sacred site. It’s a legendary site for the Yakamas.”

The entire area is known to the Yakamas as “the mother of all roots,” or a natural seed bank, Harvey said. It also houses archaeological and ceremonial sites. A portion is now slated for a proposed pumped water storage project intended to generate a hydroelectric power supply to supplement transitions to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Last week, the state Department of Ecology released the final environmental impact statement for the project. The 310-page document found it would have “significant and unavoidable adverse impacts” on tribal and cultural resources, as well as effects on golden eagles, little brown bats, desert smooth hogweed and other rare plants without proper mitigation measures.

The Goldendale Energy Storage Project website calls the more than $2 billion facility developed by Boston-based Rye Development a “cornerstone of the clean energy economy.”

In 2019, state legislators passed a law to ditch the washington power grid of energy generated from fossil fuels by 2045. The Northwest Energy and Conservation Council has recommended Power providers in the Pacific Northwest purchase at least 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy resources by 2027 to ensure grid reliability and reduce emissions.

Wind and solar energy production varies hour by hour and minute by minute. This creates huge challenges for utility managers, who must ensure that supply and demand are constantly in balance. Otherwise, they risk blackouts. So more energy storage, like the proposed Goldendale project, could make power generation more consistent.

The 680-acre project site includes plans for two 60-acre reservoirs connected by an underground concrete or steel tunnel equipped with turbines.

The facility uses electricity to pump water to the upper reservoir. When there is a high demand on the electrical grid, that water is released down the 2,100-foot slope to create additional power, like a giant water battery. Some consider design to be a more sustainable alternative to other energy storage projects that rely on lithium batteries.

The Goldendale facility could generate 1,200 megawatts of clean power and could discharge at its power capacity for 12 to 20 hours before running out.

The project is supported of the local unions, the city of Goldendale, the county and the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District of the region. Local utility district representatives have said renewable energy storage could increase residential security in extreme weather events and make the grid more reliable, the Goldendale Sentinel reported.

“Without this project,” said Rye Vice President of Development Erik Steimle, “Washington will have to meet its storage demand in other ways, all of which will impact communities and the environment.”

“We are still here”

Creating this resource would mean taking away another, said Jeremy Takala, councilman for the Yakama Nation.

Initially, the system is expected to take 2.93 million gallons of water from the Columbia River to fill the reservoirs, according to the Yakamas, and then 1.27 million gallons each year to make up for evaporation and leaks. The Yakama Nation has opposed the project since learning of the proposal in 2018.

According to a map included in the Ecology reportthe project would eliminate habitat for rare plants, including endangered, sensitive, and threatened species.

native plants of the area. they are used to treat the body and spirit, Harvey said. Yakama citizens have been instructed by their elders, as they were by their ancestors, to gather food and medicinal plants at the site, he said.

Some collectors will go out individually, others in groups. Families will go together to pass on the teachings, said Andrea Tulee, a Yakama spokeswoman. They often work with local ranchers to access the collection area.

Many of the plants have served for thousands of years as tea, bandages, pacifiers, drums, needles, ropes, nets, food. Without them, future generations could lose a part of their relationship with the land and cultural practices. Harvey asked that the names of the plants not be shared publicly to protect them from outside exploitation.

The Ecology report counts more than 40 culturally significant plants that currently exist, or have previously existed, in the proposed project area.

Without access to First Foodindigenous peoples suffer disproportionately high levels of diabetes and other diseases due to the switch to white flour, sugar, low-quality fats, and other staple foods.

Steimle, vice president of Rye Development, said the design of the pumped-storage project has been shaped in part by feedback from Yakama leaders. The company changed the proposed site for the upper reservoir and planned to put the rest of the facility underground, he said.

“Based on a combination of the completed studies and design changes,” he wrote, “we believe the project will be able to fully mitigate construction-related resource impacts.”

Steimle added that the project sits on previously developed private land.

A portion of the lower deposit would be in a small section of the former Columbia Gorge aluminum smelter site and would need to be further studied before excavation for construction.

In the early 2000s, Scott Tillman purchased some 6,500 acres, including the proposed project site. He said that since then he has used the property to house a wind farm, radio towers that serve local emergency services and grazing cattle.

“It’s an interesting question to me,” Tillman said, “how do you treat the greater good of the community, relative to things that are meaningful to people. And it’s a challenge.”

The elders have told Harvey that the wind turbines built into the hills have already scared away some deer and eagles. Continued mining of the area has changed the access of the Yakamas.

“I read some of the comments that we weren’t there or we just disappeared,” Harvey said. “It’s really disturbing to me because we’re still here.”

Over the summer, citing the threat to the sacred Yakama Nation site, 17 tribal leaders from across the state sent a letter asking Governor Jay Inslee to deny permits for the project. Other Pacific Northwest tribes have also raised concerns, including Confederate tribes on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederate bands on the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Nez Perce tribe.

history repeats itself

If approved, the Goldendale project could be online as early as 2028.

Federal and state permitting agencies will have to approve plans to offset habitat impacts. Local tribes have a say in what mitigation of impacts to cultural resources is acceptable, said Emily Tasaka, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. But they don’t have to formally “approve” the proposed mitigation for the permits to be issued, she said.

“The applicant proposed some mitigation measures, but so far, none of the local tribes have accepted them,” he said. “They have said that there is no mitigation that will reduce the impacts of the project.”

According to Ecology, more than three quarters of the area “is at high or very high risk” due to the potential to find archaeological sites.

Takala, the Yakama Council member, said the tribe is not opposed to renewable energy projects, but he and others believe tribes should be involved early on in a project so they can provide proper consultation. He said that this project, in a way, is history repeating itself.

Dams on the Columbia River provide more than half of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity, but have also decimated thriving native salmon and rainbow trout.

“Here we are again,” Takala said. “We are back in the situation where power demand is needed and we have been feeling these impacts. All across Washington state in Indian Territory, tribes are being put in this position where they feel the burden of all these projects.”

According to the US Department of Energy, pumped-storage hydropower accounts for 93% of all large-scale energy storage in the US. There are about 43 facilities in the country and proposed more than 60 new projects since 2014.

rye development Swan Lake Energy Storage Project in Klamath County, Oregon, is fully licensed and expected to be completed by 2027. The project will generate about one-third of the power of the proposed Goldendale facility.

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

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