By now, perhaps all of us living in the rural West have wondered, “Could a wildfire destroy our own town?” This is holds true for those of us living in La Grande.
Like Paradise, California, La Grande, Oregon (where GHCC’s HQ is located) directly abuts steep, forested hillsides where wind-driven fire can rapidly spread. Our area regularly experiences strong winds which can shift direction on a moment’s notice, and La Grande’s west hills have deep canyons which can further exacerbate already intense winds.
La Grande has a history of dangerous wildfire: in 1868 and again in 1973, fire in Mill Creek Canyon spread to the edge of La Grande and threatened to engulf the town. The 1973 fire burned to within a quarter-mile of our hospital, threatening a different disaster for our entire community. Like Paradise in 2018, Mill City, Oregon in 2020, and many other rural towns in the United States, power transmission lines are a well-documented major source of the fires that have decimated rural towns in recent years.
And into this incendiary package, the Idaho Power Company proposes to build its 300-mile, high-voltage, Boardman-to-Hemingway (B2H) transmission line.
The risk of wildfire is not the only environmental consequence if the B2H transmission project becomes a reality. The B2H line will slash a 250-foot wide clear cut across 300 miles of eastern Oregon; it will erect 1,200 steel lattice towers with 20 to 40-foot deep cement footings; it will alter our viewsheds, landscapes, and above and below ground ecosystems; it will require 670 miles of access roads, 440 miles of them newly bladed or substantially improved; it will invite invasive weeds in natural areas, protected areas, in addition to agriculture and timberlands. And the list goes on.
Since 2019, we have been continuously in litigation at the federal or state levels (GHCC has served as a co-litigant in these cases). After an unsuccessful federal suit demanding a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), all efforts have been focused on the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE) and the Energy Facilities Siting Council (EFSC). This is the entity that will approve/deny a Site Certificate (aka permit for the project).
For the past 20 months, Stop B2H Coalition volunteers have been in a contested case against Idaho Power Company (IPC), the applicant, and ODOE. We are contesting many of the serious flaws and inadequate analyses in Idaho Power’s application for the B2H.
The range of environmental impacts have been studied and evaluated for over 15 years by the alphabet soup of federal and state agencies who are supposed to be looking out for the natural, environmental, and cultural resources that they regulate and/or manage. However, as explained in the contested case summary from Matt Cooper below, the agencies have not adequately analyzed the risk of wildfires if the B2H transmission project is approved.
Matt Cooper is one of many active volunteers that Stop B2H fondly calls the Contested Case Warriors. Matt is a Stop B2H Board Member and long time member of GHCC. All of the Contested Case Warriors have been representing themselves (without lawyers) through the process of voluminous legal filings and hearings, facing off against Idaho Power’s legal team as well as the Oregon Department of Energy's siting analysts and attorneys. We started the contested case with 53 “petitioners” (aka litigants) and 71 case issues. The issues are stated very narrowly and are categorized into 13 general topic areas, such as fish and wildlife habitat, land use, historic, cultural, and archeological resources, protected areas, threatened and endangered species, and many more. Today, we have 39 issues and 19 petitioners that have survived IPC’s legal strategies and ruses.
The same administrative law judge has heard all three levels of our contested cases in Idaho Power’s application process, and no matter how well researched and substantive our evidence is, she has consistently favored Idaho Power. Her final Order on our remaining 39 contested cases is due May 31. We anticipate she will continue to rule for Idaho Power and EFSC will follow her ruling. Unchallenged, her ruling could allow Idaho Power to begin construction in 2023. If this happens, our only opportunity for a fair hearing to save priceless resources in Eastern Oregon will be an appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court. We will be back next month for another blog or update, to keep you informed. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook @StopB2H and poke around our website: stopb2h.org, especially the newsletters, fact sheets and technical filings.
Fuji Kreider is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Stop B2H Coalition. She is an intrepid community organizer and organizational development consultant who has worked in various sectors and countries (community health, poverty, tourism, energy, peace, and international development and governance). She loves to cook, travel to off-the-beaten-path locations, hike, raft, pursue photo-media hobbies, and play with friends. She lives in La Grande.
Contested Case Summary: Wildfire Fire Protection, by Matt Cooper
The administrative judge summarized my issue as: “Whether Applicant adequately analyzed the risk of wildfire arising out of operation of the proposed facility and the ability of local firefighting service providers to respond to fires.”
My case pointed out the susceptibility to wildfire in areas where the B2H line would cross southwest of La Grande, such as the Morgan Lake WUI (Wildland Urban Interface), which was rated as the highest fire risk in the county in 2005. I also drew attention to the history of fire in this area, including the Rooster Peak fire of 1973—the largest and most destructive in this region—and a fire at the base of what is now Morgan Lake Road in 1868. I questioned the wisdom of building transmission towers in the rugged terrain near Morgan Lake, where firefighting could be challenging, and evacuation routes would be limited.
I also questioned Idaho Power’s estimated response times to fire in these rural areas, which they stated were “4 to 8 minutes.” Anyone who has driven up Morgan Lake Road, even in a passenger car, can vouch for the absurdity of that estimate.
I built my case using a variety of sources: witness testimony from survivors of the Rooster Peak fire and Forest Service fire lookout staff; articles from scientific journals and regional newspapers; county and regional planning documents; and the legal deposition of a local fire official.
Idaho Power responded by hiring three expert witnesses and bombarding us with blizzards of handbooks, articles, and undecipherable spreadsheets. Their lead witness, who has never set foot in this region, produced a lengthy report with impressive-looking tables, maps covering huge areas but with little detail, averages of wind speeds and slope angles, etc. They claim that prevailing wind patterns in the Grande Ronde Valley during fire season would blow any fire away from La Grande, and that fires would never travel downhill. Their analysis of wildland fire in this region only went back 30 years, so it omitted the Rooster Peak fire.
Their lead witness sought to prove that the catastrophic fires in California and Western Oregon, caused in many cases by power lines, would not happen here due to differences of climate and vegetation. They also claim the large steel lattice towers used in transmission lines (as opposed to shorter, wooden “distribution” lines) rarely cause fires; nonetheless, they admitted several smaller fires have started this way—one of which was probably caused by a Mylar balloon. They also conceded that their original estimates of response times to a fire in Morgan Lake region were inaccurate.
I asked for “site conditions” including burial of the line in any areas of high wildfire risk, but one of their expert witnesses cited astronomical figures for this (in the tens of billions to underground the entire line!). Thus, if it is ever built, B2H should follow the BLM Environmentally Preferred route; or better yet, it should simply not be built.
For anyone wishing to dive into the weeds on this case, the full closing brief is here.
Matt Cooper is a retired music professor at Eastern Oregon University who has lived in La Grande since 1991. Prior to that, he lived in Eugene, Portland, and Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to fighting Idaho Power, his other hobbies include exploring the outdoors in beautiful Northeast Oregon and beyond, include hiking, bicycling, Nordic skiing, and climbing. Though retired from college teaching, he continues performing as a professional keyboardist as well as teaching private lessons through a local arts center. In addition to serving on the STOPB2H board, he is president of the local music teachers association.