Think Out Loud

A proposed green energy project could lead to cultural harm for the Yakama Nation

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
March 6, 2023 5:24 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 6

A proposed pump storage project near John Day Dam would store excess energy and could provide power to half a million homes. But, as the Yakama Nation and other tribes argue, the proposed location would destroy sacred gathering sites and resources that are irreplaceable. Toastie Oaster is a staff writer for High Country News and has been covering this issue. They join us to share more about what is at stake and the fight against the project.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A proposed project near Goldendale, Washington would store energy and could provide power to half a million homes. But as the Yakama Nation and other tribes have argued, the project would destroy sacred gathering sites and irreplaceable resources. Toastie Oaster has been covering this issue as a staff writer for High Country News. They join us to talk about this particular project and the larger issue of what they call “green colonialism”. Toastie, welcome back.

Toastie Oaster: Hi, Dave. It’s nice to be back.

Miller: It’s great to have you back. So I want to start with the land itself, that’s at the heart of this debate. It’s a little south of Goldendale, but citizens of the Yakama Nation call it Pushpum. What does this area mean to the Yakama people?

Oaster: Well, it’s part of the Yakamas’ ceded lands and they have treaty protected rights to continue accessing the land there for things like hunting and fishing and food gathering. And so this particular development site is a root gathering site that they use for gathering medicinal roots and resources for ceremony and food resources, and so on and so forth. And that’s what’s under threat.

Miller: Can you describe the proposal by a Boston-based company called Rye Development? What would it actually do?

Oaster: Well, the development would be for storing excess renewable energy. So if you go up to this ridge in South-Central Washington during the springtime, when it’s really windy, all of the wind turbines are going full tilt and they’re producing so much energy that it’s more than the grid can actually handle. So a lot of those wind turbines actually get shut off because there’s nowhere to send the energy that they’re producing. Well, of course, that’s kind of a waste. So the pumped hydro storage [PHS] development is a system that would take all of that excess energy, instead of turning those wind turbines off, it would just reroute that energy into a pump that would pump water up a hill and store that water in a reservoir for later. And then when it’s needed, it could be released down through a hydro-turbine and turned back into energy on demand.

Miller: So it’s basically using uphill water as a kind of aquatic battery, potential energy, of having the water flow downhill, that would turn once again into electricity?

Oaster: Exactly.

Miller: How long have plans for this pumped hydro storage facility been in the works?

Oaster: Well, that’s part of what our investigation uncovered. Originally, this was proposed in 2008 to the county. The landowner proposed this to a collection of government officials and it wasn’t until nine years later, in 2017, that the Yakama Nation was even notified, let alone consulted. So there were nine years of development and momentum and different people, different stakeholders, coming and going and getting involved to bring just a lot of momentum and investment into this project before the tribes were even thought of.


Miller: And what is the Tribe’s legal argument here, in terms of when they should have been made aware of this project and who they should be in direct consultation with?

Oaster: Well, there’s a lot of moving parts to answering that, but they’re trying to get consultation with the federal agency that has the power to license this project, and that’s the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC]. And they’ve basically hit a wall with FERC, and have not been able to consult. Now, that’s at a federal level.

The bigger question of when they should have been involved or what their legal strategy is, it really comes back to this idea that like, what we have now is a broken consultation system and they should be consulted as sovereigns by the state and by the federal government. And what’s happening instead is, FERC, for example, is using the developer, a private company, as their stand-in and saying, “consult with the company instead – they’ll be our representative.” And the Yakama Nation of course, is not going to consult with a corporation, they’re a sovereign government. So that’s part of why they’re at a standstill.

Miller: Last July 17, Washington’s federally recognized tribes sent a letter to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, asking him to deny permits for the project. Where does it stand right now?

Oaster: Well, actually, since our story came out, the NCAI, which is the National Congress of American Indians, and also the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians have signed on in their opposition as well, and have written to Washington State officials asking them to deny licensing. So the Yakama Nation is not backing down, and other allies throughout Indian country are joining them in opposition to this project. As of our reporting, FERC seems to be moving forward and the county seems determined to move forward and the developer seems determined to move forward. So it remains to be seen.

Miller: Meanwhile, you point out that this is just one project, but in a place where many other renewable energy projects are either in operation or are being planned, can you just give us a scale for the amount of alternative energy production in this area?

Oaster: Yeah, it’s been described as a gold rush. And the Yakama Nation, alone, is looking at 34 solar and wind developments proposed on their ceded lands, right now. And that’s under development. That’s not accounting for stuff that’s already built. It’s also not accounting for some type of storage, or geothermal projects which… that’s also renewable energy, of course. So there’s dozens of these, and the thing is, the Yakama Nation doesn’t have the staffing or the resources or the manpower to adequately address a development like the Goldendale one, let alone 34 others.

So they’re inundated, basically. And that’s just one tribe, of course. The Yakama Nation is a big tribe, but they’re just one. There’s Colville, there’s all kinds of other tribes in surrounding areas that are having a similar influx of a rush to develop renewable energy infrastructure on their lands, on culturally sensitive lands.

Miller: On some levels, this seems really different from something like the Dakota Access Pipeline which was about continuing our fossil fuel-based world. This is about decarbonizing society, something that we have to do as a species if we’re going to prevent an unlivable climate. Does that affect this debate?

Oaster: Yeah, it definitely does, and it does seem so different from the Dakota Access Pipeline for example, but if you look at it from a Native perspective, it’s essentially the same. It’s essentially companies enabled by government entities coming in and saying, “We’re going to do this to this land, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Or giving lip service to a consultation process, but it’s a consultation process that’s broken by design. So, it’s different, but it’s the same.

The thing is that because it’s renewable energy, it’s drawing a different set of advocates. It’s not oil tycoons or something. It’s green energy folks and that makes it a little more complicated to combat. Because the Yakama Nation has been saying again and again they’re not opposed to green energy by any stretch of the imagination. I think everybody can agree that we want to get off fossil fuels and carbon emissions. It’s just that there’s a, there’s a way to do it and the way to do it is not to repeat manifest destiny.

Miller: Toastie, thanks very much.

Oaster: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Toastie Oaster is a staff writer for High Country News.

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