WA Clean energy project clashes with important Yakama site

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

“It’s a really important First Food gathering area,” said Elaine Harvey, environmental coordinator with Yakama Nation Fisheries and a member of the Kamiltpah Band. “It’s our sacred site. It’s a legendary site for the Yakamas.”

The whole area is known to the Yakamas as “the mother of all roots,” or a natural seed bank, Harvey said. It also holds archaeological and ceremonial sites. Now, a portion of it is slated for a proposed pumped-water storage project intended to generate a supply of hydropower to complement transitions to renewable energy sources like 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, smooth desert parsley 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 lawmakers passed legislation to rid Washington’s electric grid of fossil fuel-generated power by 2045. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has recommended power providers in the Pacific Northwest acquire at least 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy resources by 2027 to ensure grid reliability and reduce emissions.

Output from wind and solar varies hour by hour and minute by minute. This creates big challenges for utility managers, who must ensure demand and supply 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 up to the higher reservoir. When there’s high demand on the power grid, that water is released back down the 2,100-foot slope to create additional power, like a giant water battery. The design is considered by some 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 energy, and could discharge at its power capacity for 12 to 20 hours before depleting.

The project has backing from local trade unions, the city of Goldendale, the county and the region’s Mid-Columbia Economic Development District. Representatives of the local utility district have said renewable energy storage could boost residential safety in extreme weather events and make the grid more reliable, the Goldendale Sentinel reported.

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

“We’re still here”

Creating this resource would mean taking away another, said Yakama Nation Councilmember Jeremy Takala.

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

According to a map included in the Ecology report, the project would uproot rare plant habitat, including endangered, sensitive and threatened species.

Plants native to the area 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 medicinal and food plants at the site, she said.

Some gatherers will go out individually, others in groups. Families will go together to pass on the teachings, said Yakama spokesperson Andrea Tulee. They often work with local ranchers to access the area for gathering.

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

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

Without access to First Foods, Indigenous people suffer from disproportionately high levels of diabetes and other diseases because of the switch to white flour, sugar, low quality fats and other commodity foods.

Steimle, the Rye Development vice president, said the pumped storage project design has been shaped in part by feedback from Yakama leaders. The company has shifted the proposed site of 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 for construction-related resource impacts.”

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

A portion of the lower reservoir would be on a small section of the former Columbia Gorge aluminum smelter site and would need to be studied further before being excavated for construction.

In the early 2000s, Scott Tillman bought some 6,500 acres, including the site of the proposed project. He said he’s since used the property to host a wind farm, radio towers serving local emergency services and cattle grazing.

“It’s an interesting question to me,” Tillman said, “how you deal with greater community good, relative to things that are significant to people. And it’s a challenge.”

Elders have told Harvey the wind turbines built on the hills have already driven some deer and eagles away. The continued extraction from the area has changed Yakamas’ access.

“I read some of the comments saying we were not there, or we disappeared,” Harvey said. “It’s really disturbing to me because we’re still here.”

Over the summer, citing the threat to the Yakama Nation’s sacred site, 17 tribal leaders from across the state sent a letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to reject the project’s permits. Other Pacific Northwest tribes have also raised concerns, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Bands of the Warm Springs Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe.

History repeating itself

If approved, the Goldendale project could go 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 for impacts to cultural resources is acceptable, said Emily Tasaka, spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology. But they don’t have to formally “OK” the proposed mitigation for permits to be issued, she said.

“The applicant did propose some mitigation, but so far, none of the local tribes have accepted those,” she said. “They have said that there’s no mitigation that will reduce the project impacts.”

According to Ecology, over three quarters of the area “is within high risk or very high risk” for the potential of encountering archaeological sites.

Takala, the Yakama Council member, said the tribe doesn’t oppose renewable energy projects, but he and others believe tribes should be involved from a project’s inception so they can give proper consultation. He said this project, in a way, is history repeating itself.

Dams in the Columbia River provide over half of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity, but they also decimated flourishing native salmon and steelhead runs.

“Here we are again,” said Takala. “We’re back in the situation where energy demand is needed and we’ve been feeling these impacts. Throughout Washington state in Indian Country, tribes are being put in this position where they’re feeling the burden of all these projects.”

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

Rye Development’s Swan Lake energy storage project in Klamath County, Oregon, is fully permitted and expected to be completed by 2027. The project will generate about a third of the power of the proposed facility in Goldendale.

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed reporting.