Local urban legend used to have it that lonely nighttime travelers crossing the Rathdrum Prairie could find themselves surrounded by a human chain of members of some sinister cult looking for their next victim. In order to avoid abduction, the trick is to keep driving ahead as fast as you can at all costs. That seems to be the kind of advice the city of Rathdrum and Kootenai County have been taking over the last couple of years.
No, Rathdrum is not home to the long-rumored cult, but if all goes according to plan, the sleepy North Idaho town may soon find itself defined by another kind of chain -- a chain of major power plants. Not only would these plants pump huge amounts of water from the aquifer, but they would also pump tons of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter (PM10) into the skies of the Inland Northwest every year.
The first of the three, a new 270-megawatt power plant located smack in the middle of the prairie, is scheduled to go on line soon, after a three-week test period. Spurred by the high energy prices and the profits to be made if you have electricity to sell, two other power plants are proposed for the same location. And just down the road, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad is getting ready to build its controversial refueling depot.
One thing all the projects have in common is that aside from contributing some jobs to the local economy, they provide services for companies and people located far from Rathdrum. And in what seems a replay of Idaho's past as a natural resource supplying outpost, the residents of Rathdrum -- and the rest of the Inland Northwest -- may end up paying the price if something goes wrong.
Power to the people
A dirt road with a field full of cows on your right and bright yellow blooming rape on your left leads up to the gate to the 270-megawatt Cogentrix/Avista combined cycle natural gas power plant. Painted a pale sky blue, the plant doesn't smell at all like gas -- it smells like wet paint. A string of trailers serve as the office park, and as we pull into the construction site, the pizza delivery guy pulls out. The plant is owned jointly by Cogentrix of Charlotte, N.C. (51 percent) and Avista Power, an affiliate of the Avista Corporation (49 percent), and it's getting ready to start pumping out electricity a few months ahead of schedule, by the end of this month.
On this recent Friday, engineers were busy running computer tests as construction workers tightened the last bolts and painted the last pipes.
"It's been great working on this project," says Avista's Site Manager George Perks. "I can't tell you enough about the high quality of the workmanship that's going into this plant."
Clearly, Perks is happy about being ahead of schedule, but critics of the three power plants going in on the prairie are not. They say Cogentrix's plant is just a small taste of what's to come, and that all the power plants are being built mainly to rescue California from its self-induced power crisis -- while conveniently leaving the pollution in North Idaho.
"No, really, that's not the case," says Perks. "This plant is not just being built to supply power to California; you can't look at it that way. The power we produce goes on the grid, and from there the electrons follow the path of least resistance. Where they go is up to the Bonneville Power Administration -- they could go anywhere."
Still, at least this summer, it appears certain that the power generated at the plant will be used to power air conditioners in California during the long hot days of summer. And for getting the plant done early, Avista stands to reap a significant financial windfall.
As for the environmental impacts, Perks says the plant uses some of the most advanced technology available to limit pollution and water consumption.
"We have no scrubbers in the smokestacks, no ash to get rid of and no oil tanks on site," says Perks. "There is no wastewater to be treated either. These combined cycle plants have really boomed over the last 15 years. There's one being built in Butte, Montana, and five that I know of in Oregon alone."
The plant's main attraction is the natural gas-fired turbine, which is also where most of the power production comes from. About three stories high and with the circumference of four STA buses, the turbine is the heart of the plant.
Though dust from the air and minerals from the water will build up in the cooling tower and have to be removed over time, there is no heavy metal contamination -- as there is with waste-to-energy plants -- and no emissions other than steam from the cooling process.
But there are of course emissions from the natural gas turbine.
"You can't burn any fuel without getting carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide in the emissions," says Perks.
And it's these emissions and the plant's use of aquifer water that has local environmentalists up on the barricades.
According to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Cogentrix/Avista plant is allowed to emit 97.9 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon monoxide every year -- but it will operate at well below those limits, according to Avista.
DEQ also says that during its 333 days of annual operation, the plant is allowed to suck nearly 2,000 gallons of water out of the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer -- every minute. This adds up to about 2.3 million gallons a day. Again, this is a maximum limit.
"Under normal operating conditions, we'll use around 900 gallons a minute," says Perks. Still, that adds up to 1.3 million gallons a day -- which is only 600,000 gallons less than the entire Trentwood Irrigation District uses.
And with the drought that's descending on North Idaho and Eastern Washington, local residents are beginning to wonder just how much water can be safely pulled from the aquifer without sacrificing other uses.
"My biggest problem is that this water comes out of our drinking water," says Kristy Johnson, who lives in North Idaho. Johnson is also a member of the Friends of the Aquifer, a grassroots organization that defends the aquifer. "It's not like they are taking it out of the lake or anything; it comes out of our only source of drinking water."
Aquifers are underground rivers, and the Inland Northwest has been blessed with a plentiful one. The Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer flows right into the Spokane Aquifer, which is the main source of drinking water for an estimated 400,000 people.
Most of the water that flows through the Spokane Aquifer begins its journey in Idaho, and some fear that three big power plants side by side in Rathdrum will turn off faucets in Washington.
"These plants combined are going to take such a big toll on the aquifer that it's going to limit what other type of development can happen here," says Johnson. "The aquifer can only take so much; it is not an infinite natural resource."
Aquifer experts agree that the resource is finite, but there is disagreement over how much water should be taken out of the aquifer to keep from overly depleting it.
But the existing plant is not the biggest threat to the aquifer. What's more worrisome to aquifer advocates is the two other power plants that may soon become neighbors to Cogentrix.
North Idaho Power is applying for permission to extract 6.9 million gallons a day for a proposed 800-megawatt plant. And Newport Northwest is proposing to build a 1,300-megawatt plant, which would need yet another 12 million gallons of water per day.
There is no indication that either of the two proposed plants would employ the same clean technology as the Cogentrix/Avista plant -- which is more expensive. And the larger Newport Northwest plant, based on information provided by the DEQ, could emit more PM10 than all the grass field burning that takes place in the area combined, plus an as-yet-undisclosed amount of carbon dioxide. The two plants are currently in the preliminary permitting process; public hearings would be held before final permits are granted.
"The watershed can only take so much, and the air shed can only take so much. If they build those two as well, I don't know what's going to happen. The bigger one, the 1,300-megawatt plant, is really the one we should be concerned about," says Johnson. "That's almost five times as big as the one we have already. That's just too much."
Power plant heaven
The question many local residents are asking themselves is, "Why Rathdrum?" As for the already existing Cogentrix plant, there's no question that the allure of more than $460,000 in annual property taxes were a great incentive for the Rathdrum City Council to welcome it. Rathdrum's mayor, Tawnda Browley, will even be an employee of the new Cogentrix/Avista plant.
But the reality is that Rathdrum more than likely won't see a dime of these tax increases. The state of Idaho says that if a power plant increases the city's property tax revenue, property taxes must be cut for everyone else in that area. The City Council seems to have been unaware of this.
"It wasn't Cogentrix' fault that this happened," says Johnson. "The council didn't do their job. They should have looked into how public power is taxed differently than private property."
The city of Rathdrum and Kootenai County are appealing the state's decision.
While some blame City Hall for the power plants' rush to the area, others say the town is a victim of circumstances -- and geography. Standing outside the Cogentrix/Avista plant, one can easily see why: Three major east-west power lines run right next to the plant. From the top of the smokestack, the underground natural gas main draws a line in the prairie following much the same path. Add to that the fact that the aquifer is relatively easy to access, as it is right underneath your feet, and you're in prime power plant habitat.
Johnson also feels let down by the Idaho Legislature, which she says hasn't done much to support them.
"It was the state law that decided that Rathdrum is not going to get the tax dollars," says Johnson. "I mean, we are a one-party state, so the elected officials can do just about whatever they want to do with us. One thing is for sure, [the city of Rathdrum] is going to have to do some real investigation as to what's going to happen to that tax money with the two other plants."
City Councilman Bill Swaghoven agrees: "As we are looking at Rathdrum getting no money, maybe we shouldn't make up our minds about the two other plants until after the public hearings. As for the appeal, I think we may have a chance of getting the property tax dollars. We haven't gone to the federal government yet."
State line squabble
The talk of appeals, public hearings and threats to the aquifer awakens memories of the opposition to the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad's refueling depot, which is also to be built in Rathdrum.
In just a few weeks, construction will begin for the above-ground storage and fueling facility, which will hold 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel, again, right on top of the aquifer.
The entire depot area will be covered by a six-inch thick, sealed concrete floor with a double liner under any area where fuel is held, delivered or dispensed. Ever since the depot was first proposed, it was under heavy opposition from environmental groups both in Idaho and in Washington.
What finally persuaded Kootenai County commissioners Dick Compton and Dick Panabaker to vote for the project last year was the promise of 50 jobs being created during the construction period, some of which would remain after the facility is completed.
BNSF maintains that the facility it is proposing is completely safe, but environmental organizations are not convinced. For one thing, the report that suggested the site was stable claimed the lack of geological faults in the area added to its stability. The earthquakes of the past week may not have reached Rathdrum, but they were enough to remind people that even the unthinkable can come to pass.
But some people in North Idaho say they are tired of all the complaining they hear coming from across the state line.
"When the people from Cogentrix made their presentation before the City Council, nobody from Spokane was there," says Swaghoven. "Nobody from the city of Spokane has been over here. If they are so concerned, they should come to the meetings."
Last week, the Washington state-based labor organization REBOUND -- representing members who live and work in the Spokane/North Idaho region -- filed a protest with the Idaho Department of Water Resources (which would grant the permits) against North Idaho Power's water permit application for the 800-megawatt power plant.
Johnson says all the Washington protests are not necessarily helping anyone achieve the overriding goal of protecting the vital parts of the environment both states share.
"All I have to say to Washington is this: Be careful so you don't get the bureaucrats in Idaho all backed up into a corner. The louder Washington screams, the more entrenched Idaho becomes," she says. "That Superfund thing is a great example of how to create civil war in the Northwest. Like I said, we are a one-party state, and the elected officials can basically tell Washington to go to hell. They can approve what they want to over here."
Back at Cogentrix's plant, Perks shakes his head when asked about the prospects of having two new power plants as neighbors: "Everyone is trying to build at the same time, but I really don't think we are going to see three plants in this area. I mean, power prices are way down compared to what they were just a few months ago. I just don't think it's going to happen."
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