Donna Tisdale’s home office looks like something out of an episode of the TV show Hoarders. Paperwork spills off a crowded desk. Boxes are strewn on the floor. Every inch of space is consumed with reports, educational mailers, studies, and oversized maps of green-energy projects slated for the community of Boulevard.
“Unfortunately, this is my full-time job right now,” she says. “It’s a whirlwind. Sometimes I stay up all night. Basically, it’s a shit storm, and it’s coming from all angles: our federal government, our state government, and our local government. They all want these green-energy projects.”
California has mandated that by 2020, 33 percent of our energy must come from renewable sources. As of 2010, only 14.5 percent of California’s energy came from renewable sources, resulting in a push to create more solar and wind farms. In 2012, California’s wind-energy generation soared, and we are now second in the nation for wind-generated electricity.
The community of Boulevard is transitioning into an industrial, green-energy zone. Wind and solar companies have descended on the area with plans to erect wind turbines, solar panels, electric substations, and access roads. Iberdrola’s Tule Wind (15,000 acres), Invenergy’s Shu’luuk (4739 acres), and Enel’s Jewel Valley (8000 acres) are all green-energy projects currently in the works for this small backcountry community. If they are approved, thousands of acres in Boulevard will be consumed.
Donna Tisdale is doing her best to prevent it.
Attempting to find Tisdale’s Morning Star Ranch, I make a wrong turn at an oak tree and end up on a rocky dirt path surrounded by horses and pick-up trucks. I consult a map.
A man in a dusty sedan bearing a “Where in the Hell is Boulevard?” bumper sticker pulls up beside me.
“Where are you headed?” he drawls.
I mention Morning Star Ranch and the man nods. “You’re trying to get to Donna’s?”
He scrolls through his cell phone. “I should have her phone number in here. I can call her.” But his search does not yield a result. Instead, he rattles off the names of a few roads. Then, “you wanna go past a group of Budweiser horses and turn at a cluster of mailboxes near an oak tree. That will take you down a dirt road. Keep on driving, even after you see ‘No Trespassing’ signs. When you go past the sign that says ‘No Off Road Vehicles,’ you’ll be on her property. She has a big gate with cowboys on it. You can’t miss it.”
He sends me off with a friendly wave.
I follow his directions, ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs, and wind up on a dirt road reserved for the Border Patrol. I stop my vehicle near the big metal fence. A patrol agent with a gun holstered to his hip and binoculars around his neck approaches my vehicle. To my relief, he is also familiar with Donna.
From the Desert View Tower in Jacumba, one can see a few of the Ocotillo Express Wind Energy turbines.
“Everyone around here knows Donna,” he says. “She’s like the unofficial mayor of Boulevard. She’s a local hero.”
The agent draws a map in the dirt with his steel-toed boot. I take a photo with my phone.
“If you get lost again, knock on someone’s door. Anyone around here can tell you how to get to the Tisdale ranch.”
Ten minutes later, I drive through a gate that features an large wooden sign with three cowboys on horseback. Underneath it reads: “We don’t dial 911.” I have found the Tisdale ranch.
A tail-wagging beige mutt greets me. Behind him, a horse stands lazily in its pen near a hillside covered with tangled chaparral blackened by the Shockey Fire, which ripped through Boulevard in the fall of 2012.
Tisdale opens her screen door and without a word guides me through her kitchen and into the dining room. She motions for me to take a seat at a round dining table. She stands next to a group of large maps and immediately gets down to business, handing me a stack of paperwork on green energy. She then goes into a lengthy explanation of where the turbines and solar panels will be placed. The presentation is like a college lecture. It’s clear she’s done this before — many times.
Five minutes in, she’s interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s a neighbor, a petite, middle-aged woman with jet-black hair. The woman hands Tisdale a 50-dollar check to help fund the educational mailers that she sends out to the community.
Earlier this year, one of these 141-foot blades fell off a giant wind turbine at this site in Ocotillo.
“People do what they can [to help],” Tisdale says, “but most are working full-time or have kids in school. Frankly, this is so overwhelming for most people that they don’t know what to do.”
She points out the living-room window. “See that hill right there? We fought for 25 years to keep out the 600-acre Campo landfill.”
When the Campo Band of Mission Indians first proposed the landfill in the late 1980s, Donna and her husband Ed Tisdale contended that it would have negative impacts on the community of Boulevard. The dump, they believed, would create pollution and poison water wells. Tisdale created the Backcountry Against Dumps organization. She educated the community and got the citizens of Boulevard involved in fighting the landfill. As a result, in 2010 the Campo tribe voted it down.
“They had permits and everything,” Tisdale says proudly. And now, “after all that, the same location is going to be used for 300 acres of solar panels.”
Tisdale grew up down the hill in Imperial County, in Brawley, and has resided in Boulevard for over 30 years. She feels an obligation to protect her community’s beauty and integrity.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything when the Southwest Power Company came through here in the ’80s. I was pretty young, in my 20s, and I didn’t understand what was happening. Looking back now, it was as big of a fraud as all these other green-energy projects. But when the Kumeyaay wind turbines went up [on land adjacent to Boulevard], we thought, They are clean and green.”
As you enter the Manzanita Indian Reservation north of Boulevard, the Kumeyaay Wind Farm turbines can be seen from the road. They stretch across the hillside, resembling skyscraper versions of pinwheels placed in springtime gardens.
The 25 wind turbines stand side-by-side. They are the size of 20-story buildings, with 218-foot-tall towers and 141-foot blades. The gentle whooshing sound combines with spinning shadows tossed against the ground to produce a hypnotic feeling. They look serene.
Turbines owned by the Campo Tribe are on the Campo Reservation, which borders the Manzanita Reservation.
Annoyance with the rotating shadows of distant wind turbine blades prompted Ginger Thompson to cover her windows.
Ginger Thompson, a Manzanita tribal member, owns a home less than a football field away from the turbines. Since the construction of the wind farm, Thompson and her neighbors have complained about serious health issues. Thompson recently had part of her kidney removed after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. She and a handful of her neighbors were invited to participate in a Cal State San Marcos medical study to determine if their ailments are linked to the turbines.
An epidemiologist tested the homes that sit closest to the wind turbines on the Manzanita Reservation, confirming the presence of unconventional levels of electrical current, electromagnetic fields, and electromagnetic interference with power quality.
“A lot of tribal members got their houses tested after they found out about the different cancers going around,” Thompson says. “It scared people. We don’t want to panic. We just want to know what is going on, what these [wind turbines] produce, and if they’re harming us.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Samuel Milham, adjunct professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Dirty Electricity, visited the Manzanita Reservation twice to measure ground, air, and building stray voltage. He found that those living on the reservation are exposed to levels of transient voltage a thousand times higher than normal in their air and soil. Milham reports that the turbines produce enough dirty energy to sufficiently increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and attention-deficit disorder.
Thompson sits in a low-backed chair in the conference room at the Southern Indian Health building on the La Posta Reservation, where she works. Through a picture window, Kumeyaay windmills spin on the chaparral-covered hillside.
Thompson motions their way. “Soon, we are going to be surrounded from ridge to ridge to mountaintop by those things. We need more information, true information, not the information these companies cherry [pick] for us.”
After her cancer diagnosis in November 2012, Thompson began taking precautions. She no longer allows her 11-year-old granddaughter to play outside in the yard without her shoes on. Before going to bed, Thompson makes sure all the electronics in her room and her granddaughter’s room are unplugged.
“I worry that this stuff is getting in my water, the air, the dirt in the ground. Am I safe in my home? When I go to bed, I unplug everything, because of the extra energy coming through. If you are sleeping next to an outlet, that energy enters the body. It might be extreme, but why take chances?”
Thompson and her granddaughter recently bought seeds to plant a garden to grow their own fruits and vegetables, but she is rethinking that idea.
“I don’t think it’s safe to consume the food I would grow. I’m not going to take that risk until I am sure that the [energy produced by the turbines isn’t] going to cause a health risk.”
Especially aggravating to Thompson are the shadows cast inside her home from the turbine blades. She used to have sheer curtains in her kitchen window, with a view of the mountains surrounding her land. She had to switch them for thick ones that block out the sun. “The shadows of the turbines swooping drives me crazy,” she says. “It makes me dizzy.”
Thompson has experienced health issues apart from the cancer. “Since the turbines, my granddaughter and I are tired all the time. My allergies are heightened. My eyes are watering constantly. When I get off the mountain to go on vacation, after a couple of days away from the [Sunrise] Powerlink and the turbines, I’m back to normal.”
Despite her concerns, Thompson plans to stay put. “I can’t afford to move. My house is paid for. Besides, I love my property. I am surrounded by relatives. My heritage is here.”
She isn’t angry that the turbines were built. Initially, like many others, she believed they were a good alternative. She points to a lack of public education by the green-energy companies.
“We had no say in them going up. They just appeared one day.” Thompson shrugs. “The only thing we can do is try to stop more from going in. We need more honest literature to read on the turbines. The information we get is so limited. I want these corporations and investors to tell us exactly what is going on. They are claiming these are safe and don’t cause health problems. I don’t think the turbines are green. I believe they are what are called ‘bad energy.’ They want to make a profit off [the turbines] at our expense.”
Three miles away, on the other side of I-8, Boulevard resident Don Bonfiglio is also impacted by the Kumeyaay Wind Farm.
“The sound they produce is driving me crazy,” he says. We’re sitting at a table in the Manzanita Diner, off Old Highway 80 in the center of Boulevard. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and we share the restaurant with one other patron.
“The first time I noticed it was in the middle of the night,” Bonfiglio says. “I heard this humming noise and couldn’t sleep. I thought it was my fridge. It sounded like it was coming from my ceiling. It was like someone was mowing their yard down the block. I shut everything off and looked around. It was driving me nuts. I went outside at 3:00 in the morning to look around. I walked toward the motel. But it wasn’t there. I walked to the other corner, but there was nothing there. I walked a mile to find the source of the noise. Finally, I realized it was the turbines.”
Bonfiglio hears the buzzing whenever he’s home. It’s worse at night, but also noticeable during the day.
“The noise gives me a headache. My renter lives a mile up the road. When she came to pick up her mail one day, she told me she was going to the doctor because she thought she was losing her mind. ‘I keep hearing this ringing noise, and no one else is hearing it,’ she told me. And I said, ‘I hear it all the time. You aren’t crazy. It’s the windmills.’”
Dr. Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD — she was educated at Johns Hopkins and Princeton — coined the term “Wind Turbine Syndrome” to describe symptoms experienced by many who reside near windmill installations. Side effects include: headaches, vertigo, ringing of the ears, nausea, panic attacks, sleep disturbance, and memory and concentration issues. California State San Marcos researcher Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez found that 68 percent of those living on the Manzanita Reservation suffer from chronic sleep disorders and other problems associated with Wind Turbine Syndrome.
“I’m really disappointed,” says Bonfiglio. “I used to spend seven nights a week here, but now I only come down three days a week. The noise from the turbines makes it hard to sleep. [Green-energy companies] are ruining this beautiful backcountry community.”
Illnesses attributed to the low-frequency noise — infrasound — produced by wind turbines, have been compared to a Navy study on motion sickness induced by the physical vibration of pilots in flight simulators. Sickness occurred when the vibration frequency was in the range of 0.05 to 0.9 Hz, with the worst effect being at about 0.2 Hz, similar to the frequency of large wind turbines.
The industry’s response to claims of excessive low-frequency noise from wind turbines has always been that the levels are so far below the threshold of hearing that they are insignificant.
The Wisconsin Public Service wind-infrasound study at the Shirley Wind Farm demonstrated that industrial-scale wind turbines can be linked to the adverse health effects grouped under Wind Turbine Syndrome. At most locations where health problems occur, the wind turbines are generally not audible. Health problems were unrelated to those arising from noise problems and associated annoyance issues. Residents could sense when the turbines turned on and off, even when they couldn’t “hear” them. The measurements at Shirley showed that low-frequency infrasound is present and relevant.
The tests demonstrated that not only do wind turbines produce significant levels of infrasound, they also produce it in a frequency range below the ability of most professional acoustical instruments to accurately measure. This explains why other studies of wind-turbine infrasound have failed to identify similar levels.
The World Health Organization concludes that, as with X-rays and UV radiation — where you can’t see what causes harm — what you can’t hear can also hurt you. Populations most vulnerable to infrasound include “elderly persons, children, especially those younger than age six; and people with pre-existing medical conditions, especially if sleep is affected.”
“The sound they produce is driving me crazy,” says Don Bonfiglio.
In 2011, Don Bonfiglio wrote a letter to Robert Eben, superintendent of the Southern California Bureau of Indian Affairs, concerning an alarming sight he encountered while walking through the Kumeyaay Wind Farm. Bonfiglio claimed to have witnessed a worker driving through in a golf cart. “The golf cart stopped about 50 yards away from me. I watched the driver pick up and throw something in the back of the cart. As I came side-by-side with the cart, I stopped, and to my disbelief and shock I noticed over a dozen large dead birds. One of the birds was the largest horned owl I have ever seen.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to issue “take permits,” which allow wind-turbine developers to suffer no consequences when federally protected eagles are killed by the wind turbines.
Iberdrola Renewables, a company that received over $1.5 million in U.S. stimulus funds and is planning a wind farm in Boulevard, is a key player in pushing take permits for the wind industry.
Bonfiglio bought property in Boulevard 13 years ago with a plan to retire on his 250 acres of land. With the noise from the turbines, however, and plans for more to go up, he’s looking to move. Bonfiglio views the turbines as more trouble than they’re worth.
“Those things are down more than they are up. The propellers come off. One year, all of them shattered. I talked to a gentleman up there [who was] working on them, and he said something is always going wrong. They aren’t really making any money off them, but the government wants them out there. They don’t care if it doesn’t work. They don’t care who it impacts. They’ve shoved it all out here. These windmills — most people think they’re really cool, but they don’t live by them. It’s green energy, but it’s not really green.”
Bonfiglio is concerned about the indifference many in Boulevard seem to feel about the projects.
“I hate to hear people [in Boulevard] say, ‘It’s already done, there is nothing we can do about it.’ I don’t think most people in town realize what is about to happen. By the time they realize and try to get involved, it will be too late. They will be here already. There are only 25 of them right now, but once they put in those 160, people are going to be pissed off. It’ll be too late then. People are going to move. [Boulevard] will become a ghost town.”
Bonfiglio makes an effort to attend the monthly meetings held by the Boulevard Community Planning Group. He is thankful to have Tisdale fighting to protect Boulevard.
“I like what Donna stands for and what she is trying to do. She is trying to keep [Boulevard] a country community and not let it become something it’s not intended for. If it wasn’t for her, [Boulevard] would already be done for. She has been fighting ever since I have known her. I don’t know where she gets the energy, time, or the money, but thank God she’s here. I send her a couple of hundred a year for her cause. I’m not rich, but I try to do what I can.”
Back at Morning Star Ranch, Tisdale arranges to take me on a tour of the existing, and soon-to-be-existing, green-energy projects around Boulevard.
New blades were recently installed on turbines at the Ocotillo Express Wind Energy Project.
As her SUV ambles down dirt backroads and over paved McCain Valley Road, she gestures out her window, pointing out where turbines, solar panels, and substations will soon be sited. We cruise past the Manzanita Diner on Old Highway 80; nearby solar panels will soon consume a vacant prairie grass–filled field. We pass a video-rental shop, an elementary school, and a post office.
“I was out getting signatures on a petition one time in front of that post office, and there was a woman there,” Tisdale says, “and when I tried to [educate her] on the green-energy projects, she said, ‘Oh, I don’t need to get involved in that. There is some woman out here that does all of that!’ I said, ‘Excuse me, that woman is me, and I could use some help!’ It’s so typical.”
We drive past a store called Beaver Creek Trading Company. Rusty washing machines line the entry. A nearby convenience store sheds peeling paint; the sign out front thanks the city’s firefighters for their hard work during the Shockey Fires, which scorched 2556 acres, destroyed 11 homes, and took the life of Tisdale’s neighbor.
Some say wind turbines in Boulevard will put the community at even greater fire risk. The Caithness Wind Farm Information Forum has documented 200 wind-turbine fires worldwide since the 1990s. Fires have been ranked as the second leading form of turbine accidents. Over the past decade, the number of nationwide turbine fires has drifted between 13 and 21 each year.
Tisdale pulls her car into a parking lot off In-Ko-Pah Park Road, in front of the Desert View Tower. This structure resembles a postcard version of the storybook tower where Rapunzel was locked away, but instead of a long-haired captive, it houses a bizarre museum filled with vintage photographs, artwork, maps, books, and quirky bumper stickers. Four mutts roam the grounds.
A staircase leads to the tower’s top floor, where a quarter-fed telescope offers a 360-degree look at the desert. Parts of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean are also visible. But everything is dwarfed by the view of dozens of wind turbines, part of the 12,435-acre Ocotillo Express Wind Energy Project.
Museum owner and activist Ben Schultz says with frustration, “Not that many people make their money off the way things look, but I do. How can you even quantify what that is?”
Schultz points to the row of windmills and spits, “It’s not the Windmill View Tower, it’s the Desert View Tower. When every roof in San Diego is covered in solar panels, then they can come out here and fuck up more of the backcountry that they’ve been fucking up for years.”
Adds Tisdale, “They told the people in Ocotillo [the turbines would be] five miles away from the town, when it’s actually surrounding the town. It’s devastating for the people that live there, and the wildlife. The people in Ocotillo have lost about half the value in their homes. The ones that stay look out their doors and see these things. At night there are bright blinking red lights. They bought property for the stars and nature. We filed lawsuits, but these guys are being supported by the Obama administration and the [California] Public Utilities Commission. These things go through with obvious violations of law and common sense.”
The land-use status in Ocotillo was changed by the Bureau of Land Management specifically to accommodate the wind-turbine project. Changes were made without economic-impact analysis or a public-comment period on the project’s impact on Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. According to city-data.com, the average price of a home in Ocotillo went from $170,000 in 2007 to $70,000 in 2011, after the wind project went in.
“It’s clear that planning-commission laws [re solar and wind energy] are absolutely not operating in the U.S. right now,” Schultz says. “If you have money, you can do anything you want. See that [Sunrise Powerlink tower] up there?” He points to an unsightly mass of metal on top of some boulders to the south. “That went up with no permit 11 years ago. It couldn’t be more in the way of the first view of the desert you get from the freeway. And just because these things are terrible doesn’t mean they are going to go away. Those are going to be there forever.”
In a Washington Times article from March 2013, writer Bill Gunnderson states that as many as 4500 wind turbines have been built and abandoned in California alone.
Schultz is frustrated at the lack of community activism when solar and wind companies come into the backcountry of San Diego.
“If people don’t get down there and organize civil disobedience, nothing is going to get done. We might as well go home and watch TV. [In San Diego’s backcountry], the Fourth Amendment isn’t operating. A silent coup has taken place, and everything Americans take for granted about the way our system operates is not working back here.”
“Our community is collateral damage in the process,” Tisdale says.
Federal land-management officials have waived environmental laws and conservation planning to allow thousands of acres of energy development on protected land. San Diego County has overridden local land-use regulations in both Jacumba and Boulevard. These projects have also received a pass on some state and federal environmental requirements, while enjoying hefty tax benefits from the federal government.
“Donna and I are on opposite sides of the political spectrum,” Schultz says. “I am a Quaker, and she is a conservative. Both of us see that something is seriously amiss here. I really believe that civil disobedience and non-violence are the only way to go.
“[The green-energy companies] are going to get what they want, whether it’s by hook or by crook,” Tisdale says. “They’re bullies. They know what they can get away with. They have the connections and know all the moves, and they use them all. They have the money to spread around. It’s smooth as butter for them. I’m just a bump on the road.”
Says Schultz, “What Donna’s problem is, is she doesn’t believe what she’s seeing. We are going to lose. We are a few people going up against a million people that want this green energy to go through. Something big will be lost, and all for what? A tax write-off for a billionaire.”
“It’s a monument to idiocy and corruption,” Tisdale adds angrily.
Back in Tisdale’s Explorer, we now head toward the wind turbines on the Campo Reservation, and the closer we get, the louder the sound from the blades becomes. It’s as if someone has turned on a vacuum cleaner in the backseat. Along the way, Tisdale points out various pieces of land that will soon be swallowed up by green energy.
“Everyone seems shocked when I bring them out here. I even took out Governor Brown’s energy guy, Michael Picker. I gave him the tour, and he was overwhelmed and pretty aghast. And yet, when I said, ‘Nothing is going to change, is it?,’ he said, ‘The governor wants them everywhere.’ But he did tell me to send him more [information] on the health impacts.”
The Tule Wind Power Project will utilize land sacred to Native Americans and areas of Boulevard that were settled by pioneers in the late 1890s. Recreational land will be robbed of views enjoyed by locals and visitors. Turbines 492 feet tall will dot the landscape. Driving past Carrizo Gorge and the boulder-filled hilltops, it’s hard to imagine what Boulevard might look like once it’s been fully developed into a green-energy corridor.
“This is my space,” Tisdale says, her voice thick with sadness. “I grew up with these views and the ability to enjoy our public land. That’s being taken away from us, and it’s irreplaceable.” Her tone hardens. “People out here have a different lifestyle. Not everyone has a computer, not everybody has electricity or cell service. When I hold community meetings, it’s to educate and wake up my neighbors and get them fired up to fight these green-energy companies. I think we can do it. I’m an eternal optimist. I’m going to go down fighting. You can’t be bullied into submission. You have to stand up for what’s right.”