Labor joins environmentalists, others to stop power plant in Central Oregon
By Michael Funke, Special Correspondent
MADRAS - Central Oregon unions have joined ranchers, rock climbers, conservationists and community activists in a growing campaign to stop construction of a massive power plant in rural Jefferson County.
Cogentrix, a North Carolina-based energy company, plans to use non-union, out-of-state labor to build a 980-megawatt gas-fired steam generation plant at the base of Grizzly Mountain, 12 miles from Smith Rock State Park and next to Crooked River National Grasslands.
The Grizzly plant will employ just 40 full-time workers and hinder future economic growth in Central Oregon by using millions of gallons of water every day.
Cogentrix wants a tax-free enterprise zone so it will pay no property taxes for the first five years the plant is in operation.
Jefferson County commissioners appear to be leaning in favor of the plant. All they are asking of Cogentrix is $10 million for a new Madras swimming pool in exchange for five years of lost tax revenues worth millions more. The electricity generated by the plant will be sold on the energy market for the highest price, most likely to light the homes of Californians, coalition members said.
"Why should we give tax incentives to a plant built by out-of-state workers when we have our own state budget crunch?" asked Jerry Fletcher, a business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 280. "The fact that the company is for sale raises additional questions about the whole project."
The IBEW business agent also questions why Cogentrix wants to build the plant close to a state park and wildlife refuge. Smith Rock, towering over the Crooked River, is a majestic rock-climbers' paradise that is also visited by hikers, picnickers, horseback riders and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The Central Oregon Building Trades Council and Central Oregon Labor Council have joined the Juniper Group of the Sierra Club, farmers, ranchers and other outdoor enthusiasts to form the Stop Cogentrix Coalition. The Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board voted last month to oppose the power plant.
Stop Cogentrix has focused pressure on the county commissioners because they can stop the plant by refusing to give the company a tax-free enterprise zone. Close to 4,000 people have signed a petition to stop the plant and dozens of signatures are added every day.
"We're concerned that Cogentrix is not willing to sign a project labor agreement," said Alan Mills, a business agent for Plumbers and Fitters Local 290 and president of the Central Oregon Building Trades Council.
"We're also concerned that the water consumed by the plant will cost all of us jobs in the future," he added. "Cogentrix will take water away from future development of industries and construction jobs that could employ hundreds."
The plant will draw up to eight million gallons of water a day out of the Opal Springs aquifer - some of the finest drinking water in Oregon. That's 200,000 gallons per employee every day and 2.7 million gallons more than the combined daily use of water customers in nearby Madras and Redmond, according to water department records. Water use in the Deschutes River watershed is an increasingly important issue as Central Oregon experiences significant new growth and development. Cogentrix wants to simply pay for the right to drain water from the Deschutes and Crooked river basins without replacing it.
"That's why it's also important for Cogentrix to air-cool their plant," said Mills.
The Grizzly plant threatens to turn Central Oregon's pristine blue skies to gray with steam plumes that will rise 1,600 feet into the sky, as well as airborne pollutants - carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and more - equal to the emissions of 294,000 cars every day, say Stop Cogentrix organizers.
"We need modern high-tech scrubbers to clean the air from smokestacks and bring emissions down to an acceptable level," said Jerry Fletcher, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 280.
The plant site is at 3,350 feet on a high plateau along Grizzly Mountain, clearly visible across much of Central Oregon. The building will cover 34 acres with four 175-foot tall smokestacks. Thirteen tons of contaminated sludge waste will be hauled from the plant to local landfills every day.
"The Cogentrix gas plant runs counter to the Central Oregon way of life," says Sandy Lonsdale, chair of the Sierra Club's Juniper Group. "It's going to consume billions of gallons of new fresh water every year for 30 years. It's going to pollute our blue skies and sully our spectacular views, and it's not a clean industry or a big jobs-producer that would benefit Central Oregon."
What's needed, Lonsdale adds, are renewable energy, more energy conservation and increased energy efficiency standards.
The plant will impact recreation and tourism well beyond the state park. Thane Jennings, an official with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), says plant emissions could blur visibility in the Mount Washington wilderness area.
The plant will be visible from Lake Billy Chinook, a popular water sports destination. Air quality will likely deteriorate at Billy Chinook, Ochoco Lake, Prineville Reservoir, and on the Deschutes, Metolius and Crooked rivers. The plant is only 34 miles north of Bend, the largest city in Central Oregon.
Cogentrix also faces opposition in Idaho and Washington, where the company wants to draw water from an aquifer shared by both states. Labor and environmental activists cheered as Kootenai County commissioners in Idaho and Spokane County commissioners in Washington said they would pursue their own $3 million in-depth study to determine how three proposed power plants - including Cogentrix - will impact water and air quality.
Mary Zemke, who raises horses with her husband Ron 13 miles from the proposed site, organized Stop Cogentrix last October.
"Labor's involvement has been crucial," says Zemke. "Cogentrix touts only two benefits - jobs and tax revenue. The opposition by unions underscores the fact that local workers will not be hired. And it removes the Cogentrix issue from being a strictly environmental concern."
The Sierra Club, adds Lonsdale, is "happy to be working with labor groups to oppose this gas plant. The labor folks are well-organized, and they share the same concerns as we have for the well-being of the Central Oregon environment."
Grizzly plant foes are also raising critical questions with the various agencies - Oregon Office of Energy, DEQ, the state Water Resources Department, and the U.S. Forest Service - that are looking at the overall impact of the plant and, in some instances, have already told Cogentrix to fix serious problems.
Governor John Kitzhaber, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, U.S. Representative Greg Walden and State Representative Greg Smith are also being asked to take a stand against the Grizzly plant, which will impact all residents and visitors to Central Oregon.
"Cogentrix thought this was going to be easy," said Zemke, "but public outcry can stop it."
"Greater public awareness of the impacts posed by these new fossil-fuel power plants and more pressure on elected officials" are key, said Lonsdale. "In short, people power."
Union members who want more information can call the Stop Cogentrix hotline and leave a message at 541-475-4446, send an e-mail to email@example.com, and sign an online petition at http://www.petitiononline.com/Grizzly/
(Editor's Note: Michael Funke is a member of the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981 in Bend, Oregon.)
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.