By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Much ado about nothing, perhaps.
But the late ‘70s debate over a proposed PG&E coal-fired power plant west of Willows brought out deep divisions in county political life.
Farmers, ranchers, and other locals put up a huge fight, saying the county would lose lots of farmland, water, and air quality.
The plant would have provided around 500 permanent jobs; worth as much as the rest of the county, it would have doubled property tax revenue.
But in June 1979, the state Energy Commission ended up turning down the site: it lacked a secure water supply. Farmers had first dibs.
The result was penny-wise and pound-foolish: the water would have cost one-hundredth of what the county would have received annually in property taxes. And a similar problem in Butte County was solved when supervisors passed a resolution guaranteeing the water supply.
The commission gave approval to an alternate site in Solano County and conditional approval to the Butte site.
Shortly afterwards, for reasons unknown, the project was mothballed.
Then-Willows city councilman Matt Wiest recalls the first time he heard about it.
“We were in San Francisco for a meeting, when some PG&E guys invited us for lunch,” he says.
He smiles as he explains the covert meeting. “Because we weren’t in Glenn County, we were able to talk more.”
“It became a huge political issue.”
In April 1978, PG&E flew 29 locals to Centralia, Washington to tour a coal plant there. It was a veritable Who’s Who of Glenn County.
Among the travelers: supervisors George Edwards, Stephen Blacet, and Jean Rumiano. Eventual hard-line opponent Claire Rumiano, mother of Jean. From Willows, city manger Russ Melquist, councilmen Mr. Wiest and Ernie Matlock, and Chamber of Commerce secretary Shirley Dempsey.
“It was very nice,” said Mr. Melquist. “You didn’t see any bad stuff, any visible signs of the plant.”
The group saw nothing wrong there, Mr. Wiest agrees.
“The cows were grazing in the field,” he says, shrugging. “The grass was green.”
Both Mr. Wiest and Mr. Melquist mention the Moreau Bay plant on the Santa Barbara coast, where a coal power plant sticks out like a sore thumb from an otherwise idyllic coastline.
“Afterwards, I was convinced: they’re going to take it here,” Mr. Melquist said. “This is where it’s going to be.”
He was wrong.
Penny wise, pound foolish
The State Energy Commission had one big problem with the Willows site. The water supply isn’t secure, they said.
At the time, according to Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District records, it cost $17.25 per acre to provide water for rice. Because rice takes about six acre-feet of water per acre, we can highball the cost of water at $3.00 per acre-foot then.
Studies give figures of 20,000 to 25,000 acre-feet of water needed per year for the plant. That is, $60,000 to $75,000 worth of water per year – tops.
(At the time, plant opponent and then-supervisor Jean Rumiano gave a figure of 20,000 to 40,000 acre-feet yearly, worth $60,000 to $120,000.)
To compare, if the $2 billion plant came to Glenn County it would have provided $10.5 to $13 million per year in property taxes, tax expert Robert Palmer said then.
Even using Ms. Rumiano’s highball, that’s at least 100 times more money – a difference of two orders of magnitude.
But after a Bureau of Reclamation water contract fell through, there was no firm water supply. That meant no plant, the Commissioners said.
In the July 1979 final report, three terse sentences summarize their position:
“PG&E’s proposed water source at Willows is no longer available. No feasible alternative water source has been identified. Therefore, the Willows site is unacceptable because of its lack of water supply.”
Could the county government have done anything to prevent that outcome – losing the pound by skimping on the pennies?
The Butte County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution under the legal “county of origin” doctrine guaranteeing the project 37,500 acre-feet of water over the lifetime of the project. That’s a total value of $112,500, times perhaps 2 or 3 in a drought year.
That was good enough for the energy commissioners, who said that commitment “represents a reasonably firm water supply” and gave conditional approval to the Butte County site.
But water was a big deal for many.
Though then-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen initially supported the project, a major reason he turned against it was that the county would have to give up more water than it had planned.
“We would already have to give up water we have bargained and paid for,” Mr. Hansen said in a September 1978 public hearing.
That was one of two reasons Mr. Hansen was quoted as giving for his position in a Willows Daily Journal article on the hearing.
When Jean Rumiano spoke against the coal plant, in the subsequent Daily Journal article complaints about losing water occupied 2.5 paragraphs, out of 10 total paragraphs detailing objections.
“The question asked and never answered, said (Ms.) Rumiano, is that if there is a drought year, who would get priority – PG&E, or the farmers who raise food and cattle, etc. to feed the people,” the article concluded.
When supervisor Virginia Elemendorf listed three reasons she was opposed to the plant, the list did not include water.
Voting to oppose the coal plant, Glenn County Farm Bureau directors said that the water “could have been better used for irrigation.
Former county auditor Joe Sites looks back, thinking what the plant would have done.
“The coal plant would have doubled the value of assessments,” Mr. Sites recalls. “It was worth as much as the county.”
“And the assessed value of farmland was not growing at any appreciable rate.”
“It would have been an instant fix.”
In a preliminary PG&E document listing disadvantages of the site near Willows, a bullet point reads simply: “the community is divided over the prospect of future growth.”
A bit of an understatement, events would prove.
Taking ag land out of production was chief among other concerns.
Rancher Dick Mudd was a supervisor in the late ‘80s and 90’s. But in 1978, after fellow rancher Dave Soeth resigned his supervisor seat, Mr. Mudd threw his hat in the ring, and spoke vocally on the coal plant.
“I’m completely against it,” he said in a June 1978 Daily Journal interview. “That is certainly not the place for it. Agriculture is now the main industry in Glenn County, and it should stay that way. Already too much farmland is being taken out of production in housing developments, highways, and so forth. It seems like they always put them on the best land.”
Cattle breeder and grain farmer Richard Linquist, also in the running, agreed, saying he didn’t like the idea of taking over 2000 acres of farmland out of production.
Along with eventual appointee Virginia Elemendorf, from the James Boyd ranching family.
“I have attended many meetings and have yet to be convinced that the financial advantages could possibly overcome the harm done by pollution, transient population (of construction workers) and loss of agricultural land,” she said.
Glenn County Farm Bureau directors opposed the plant as well – by a vote of 12 to 2.
“The basic theme of the directors was that it wasn’t a bad idea to have the power plant, it was just a bad idea to locate it in an agricultural area,” a Daily Journal article read.
Many opponents coalesced around a group called “Save Our Society” – S. O. S. for short.
“We believe the Sacramento Valley should be kept agricultural. The plant is merely a forerunner of more industry and increased population that will gradually erode the agricultural base of our land,” summarized organizer Claire Rumiano at a town-hall meeting.
“Our quality of life, once traded away, would be irretrievable,” added Willows resident and co-organizer Beverly Boyd.
Exactly how influential S. O. S. was is not clear. A petition signed circulated by Mrs. Rumiano and Mrs. Boyd gathered at least 200 signatures, including Mrs. Rumiano’s daughter, supervisor Jean Rumiano.
Former city manager Russ Melquist doesn’t remember a sharp debate.
“I don’t think there was much pro or con,” Mr. Melquist said. “I don’t recall that.”
Others recall differently, perhaps because they were on the losing end.
Former county auditor Joe Sites, a friend of then-supervisor George Edwards, recalls “the vehemence and hostility that George, my friend, experienced as a supporter.”
“My God!”, he says. “I’ve seen anger, but not anger of this kind. It was near lynch-mob intensity.”
Mr. Sites mentions Claire Rumiano, on the other side: “They called her Butch,” he remarks, perhaps unkindly.
Running for supervisor in 1978, Mr. Wiest got a $50 PG&E donation and recalls, “I got accused of being a PG&E stooge.”
“I could sense the vehement opposition and, running for office, I had to maintain a position of neutrality. Project myself as neutral, just wanting more information. Willing to analyze it, if it got to that point.”
Referring to the Rumiano dairy: “I couldn’t fight cheese money.”
There was definitely lots of discussion, recalls Mr. Hansen today.
Today, Dick Mudd recalls opponents having a large role in the process.
“One of the things we jumped up and shot down is the coal plant,” he says today. “It was going to be disrupting.”
”A lot of us think, the minute you cover up this property, you better have a damn good reason.”
Other opposition formed around trains and power lines coming through town, Keith Hansen says. The trains were to ship coal in from Price, Utah; the transmission lines to get the power out to the north state and Bay Area.
“Most people were worried about rail shipment; ‘Oh well, then they’re going to block the road,’” Mr. Hansen recalls.
That sentiment, he said, “didn’t make sense.”
As for the transmission lines, they would have “ran through northeast Willows, by road 48.”
“It was some of your better houses, and when they heard, they were upset.”
There were political dynamics involved.
“You didn’t like the power lines; I didn’t like the railroad; we joined forces and were more powerful.”
Remembering the concerns, Willows councilman Mr. Wiest doesn’t roll his eyes, but his tone is the same. On the power lines:
“We weren’t going to be stupid and say, ‘PG&E, here’s five blocks.’”
“Those of us who would have been in charge would have protected the community.”
Air quality was another area of concern – for both the commission and locals.
Coal plant proponents and detractors threw figures back and forth, with the meaning perhaps unclear to laypeople.
For example, supervisor Jean Rumiano said in a speech opposing the plant that 3,780 pounds per hour of sulfur dioxide would be emitted.
Mr. Wiest responded to Ms. Rumiano in print, saying that quoting such figures is misleading:
“When a person reads about 3,000 (plus) pounds of sulfur dioxide a mental picture immediately comes to mind of a chunk of sulfur dioxide.
“In determining pollution, Ms. Rumiano completely overlooked the fact that one must consider air volumes and dispersal rates.
“The proposed coal-fired power plant will basically be a clean burning operation and the amount of pollutants it would spew forth are insignificant when compared to the volume of air in the Sacramento basin and our prevailing winds.”
Compared to existing pollution levels, the coal plant would have emitted a lot – more sulfur dioxide than was emitted in the rest of the industry-light Sacramento Valley, for example.
But that’s because there wasn’t much pollution in the first place, a PG&E report said.
The nitrogen dioxide in the Sacramento Valley was much better, “well below (emissions) standards,” while sulfur dioxide “seems to be almost absent in the Sacramento Valley.”
It was a subject about which the commission was concerned.
After the Clark’s Valley site was turned down, the cost started to balloon, largely because PG&E would have had to spend $1 billion on air-quality-control devices. That included a “tradeoff” program that would have forced PG&E to take 2 tons of pollution out of the air for each ton it put there.
Farmer and supervisor Keith Hansen, who was also serving on the board then, recalls concern over an air inversion layer in Glenn County, which would cause emitted pollution would hang around the county.
Another concern, voiced by agricultural scientists and trumpeted by groups like Save Our Society, was that pollution emitted by the plant would hurt crop yields.
In its July 1979 final report, the committee reported that scientists had presented diametrically opposed evidence, making the problem more suited for “scientific arbitration than simple adjudication.”
Though potential losses weren’t clear, the figures given centered around a 5 percent loss. The commission strongly hinted that approval would be more likely if PG&E “obtain(ed) full offsets of (relevant) pollutants from nearby existing sources.”
How much could losses have been? The Kanawha water district grew $5.8 million worth of crops annually, according to a letter sent by attorneys to the Commission.
Overall, city residents seemed more pleased at the prospect of the coal plant than farmers and ranchers.
In April 1978, the Willows city council passed a resolution in favor of locating the plant in Clark’s Valley. The stance, council members said, was subject to change as more information came in. The vote was 3-1, with then-mayor Bob Saint-Evens dissenting.
The Orland city council similarly came out in favor, while also hedging their position. In September 1978, they unanimously passed a resolution saying that “as individuals” they thought the city would be able to handle the social and economic impact of the plant.
“The plant site should have been near Orland, not Willows,” said then-Orland councilman Don Nickerson, more forthright in his support.
The Glenn County Chamber of Commerce tried to get a nonbinding poll on the November 1978 ballot, an attempt that apparently failed. A similar poll in Butte County returned 57 percent against locating the plant there.
The supervisors ended up lining up 3 to 1 against it – Keith Hansen, Virginia Elemendorf, and Jean Rumiano against George Edwards.
How relevant was political support in the coal plant’s eventual location?
As mentioned above, a resolution similar to the Butte County resolution above might have kept Willows in the running longer – at least preventing it from being disqualified due to lack of water.
In the same report turning down the Willows site, commissioners approved the Solano site was approved. And though it was not mentioned in the report, the Solano County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the project, even sending one member to make a presentation to commissioners.
Prospects for building a plant in Glenn County, with a majority of supervisors opposed, may have looked pretty bad. This is speculation; no mention of this political stance is mentioned in the final report either.
A plant in Glenn County would have meant what?
Four hundred to 500 jobs for Glenn County, PG&E said in a public hearing. Of those, 300 would be permanent PG&E employees, plus about another 100 to 200 additional jobs – gas station attendants, teachers, and so on.
When the plant would have come online, unemployment was about 15 percent. Likely many or most of the jobs would have been filled by new arrivals to the county. But if locals got even a third of those jobs, unemployment would scoot down 2 percent, to about 13 percent.
(Unemployment figures aren’t readily available for Glenn County in 1986, but when the plant would have come online. In January 1990, 13.7 percent of Glenn County-ites were unemployed. The economy was worse in January 1986, with statewide unemployment 1.5 percent higher than January 1990. 13.7 plus 1.5 equals 15.2.)
That was a concern of some locals.
“We are investing millions of dollars educating our children only to find that they have to leave the community to seek employment elsewhere,” wrote Trudy Waldroop, president of the Orland Women’s Business and Professional Club, in a letter to the commission supporting a Glenn County coal plant.
And lower taxes would have put more money in people’s pockets.
The day after a tax spokesman announces that a PG&E plant would yield $10.5 to $13 million annually in property tax, the supervisors passed the yearly budget of $11.5 million. When large plants move into town, a PG&E document said, local communities usually react by lowering property taxes, though not to the point of being revenue neutral.
In other words, Glenn County would have likely cut property taxes, but by less than half.
Opponents played up the negative effects.
Many were concerned about the around-1800 construction and support jobs that would be created when the plant was being built.
That was a theme highlighted in a May 1978 public hearing by S. O. S’s Claire Rumiano.
“The total impact would be devastating to small population areas like Willows and Orland, where housing is already short,” said Mrs. Rumiano then. She added that the area needs planned, gradual growth and the issue should be placed on a ballot.
Not just anti-coal-plant activists held this sentiment, but also the powers that were.
Willows city manager Russ Melquist and the supervisors each wrote letters to the commission, urging them to require PG&E to build temporary housing for construction workers if the plant was built in Clark’s Valley.
(Some went further, with supervisor Jean Rumiano musing publicly whether PG&E could also recruit other personnel like extra doctors.)
The committee seemed to take this outlook, seeing the coal plant as a disruption – not an opportunity for local communities.
“Nothing has altered the view that the greatest impacts would be felt by the city of Willows and that for any of the other (sites), the impacts properly mitigated by (PG&E) at the time of construction,” read the final July 1979 report.
Coal in the bigger picture
Jared Babula, a senior staffer at the California Energy Commission, after reviewing the ten boxes of files briefly, hypothesized that the plant never being built was one step in the realization that “coal is not the way to go.”
Some opponents took that position, like environmental groups and – perhaps conveniently – locals across the Valley opposing a plant in their backyard.
One Butte County-based group, Coalition Against the Coal-Fired Plant, attached 3366 signatures to a document urging alternatives like solar and wind power, cogeneration, and conservation.
None were deemed not feasible alternatives by the energy commission.
It’s possible that the geopolitics of Solano County helped doom the project; there were 10 times more people in Solano County to be affected by air pollution than Glenn County; 235,000 to 21,000 in the 1980 census
The Montezuma site is ten miles away and across the Sacramento river from Contra Costa county, and came under attack from several Bay Area environmental groups that might not have traveled a hundred miles up I-5.
(On the other hand, large environmental organizations opposing projects in Glenn County is not unprecedented. Greenpeace sent a letter opposing the Thunderhill raceway.
Planning director Jon Benoit was apparently scared; “he thought Greenpeace was going to come up here and wipe the county off the map,” recalls former supervisor Dick Mudd.
In the end, though, Greenpeace didn’t do anything about Thunderhill.)
PG&E spurned another alternative, nuclear power, arguing in 1977 that they would be unable to license and get a nuclear plant on-line in ten years.
Given the political climate, that might have been a wise choice.
Two years later, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania suffered a meltdown. Though no injuries were caused, anti-nuclear sentiment rose across the country. In Sacramento, five women and four men arrested protesting the Rancho Seco nuclear plant. In 1989, Rancho Seco was closed by referendum – two decades before its license was set to expire.
Some evidence suggests regulation at the time was overly strict.
“From 1979 to 1999, generating capacity of over 45,000 megawatts was proposed to the [California Energy] Commission,” state Sen. Tom McClintock said in a 2001 speech arguing that point.
Of that, “only 4,500 megawatts was approved.”
What happened after Willows was turned down as a site?
The plant never was built – that much is clear.
That’s all PG&E old-timers remember about it, said spokesman Paul Moreno.
And a day and a half spent digging through newspaper and regulatory archives in Sacramento didn’t give substantially more helpful information.
Soon after the selection of the Montezuma site in Solano County, PG&E announced that it wanted to speed up the approval process. Six months later, in March 1980, PG&E announced a two-year delay.
Shortly afterwards, the paper trail cuts off. Ten boxes of regulatory documents cover around three years of hearings, studies, and citizen complaints. But they come to an end abruptly in May 1980.
A Vacaville Reporter story highlights ballooning costs as a possible factor. In less than three years, basic plant costs had grown from $2 billion to $3 billion. On top of that, it would cost $1 billion to ensure a coal supply and another $1 billion for air quality controls.
Some of this cost was purely regulatory: by air quality control, the Energy Commission board included cleaning up existing power plants. They suggested a 2:1 ratio – that is, they would have to eliminate 2 tons of pollution for each new ton they emitted.
End-of-the-year Vacaville Reporter news summaries for 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984 say nothing further about the plant, though they mention repeatedly the progress of a $17 million hydroelectric plant.
Unfortunately, this reporter did not have the eight to 10 hours necessary to dig through two more years of Reporter front pages to find any other stories on the coal plant.
So: thus died 500 jobs. Or, thus were 25,000 acre-feet of water, and four to 14 square miles of farmland saved.
Perhaps in PG&E’s proposal to build a coal plant, Fate smiled only halfheartedly at Glenn County. Knocking at the door wearing gap-tooth grin and bearing unknown gifts, she may always turn from the porch and walk away. As she did here.
But the more she is seen as a foreigner and a cruel mistress, the more is the door slammed in her face; the more surely her entry is blocked.
For better, or for worse.
Summary: (box this)
What? A PG&E coal plant proposed for Clark’s Valley, west of Willows
When? 1978 and 1979
So what? Would have provided 400 to 500 jobs, and allowed supervisors to cut property taxes in half
For: Labor unions, local businesses; tentatively, the Orland and Willows city councils.
Against: Farmers and ranchers concerned about loss of water and grazing land; others over power lines, rail traffic, and air quality.
Killed by: The state Energy Commission, citing a lack of rights to water that would have cost pennies compared to tax revenue. An alternate Solano County site was eventually mothballed by PG&E.