Controversial HECA project clears ag protection hurdle
BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer
Kern County supervisors, over the objections of a long stream of farmers, rural residents and environmentalists, agreed to remove ag protections from some land so it could be used for the controversial Hydrogen Energy California project.
The Board of Supervisors had been asked to cancel an agricultural preserve on 72 acres of the project northwest of Tupman — something needed to develop one corner of the project as it is proposed. It agreed to do so.

Concerns about the larger project — a coal and petroleum-powered electrical power plant — persist, supervisors said, and the county will continue to push for the maximum level of mitigation to offset the project’s impacts to air, water and the community.

But ultimately approval or denial of the project is up to the California Energy Commission, supervisors said.

Denying the cancellation of the agricultural preserve, said Supervisor Zack Scrivner, wouldn’t stop the project — just limit the possibility of supplying coal to the plant by rail.

Approving the cancellation required supervisors to find that there is no other suitable location for the project and that there is a significant public benefit to it.

Opponents’ most oft-mentioned criticism of the project is that power from the plant would be used to manufacture fertilizer and would not produce much power for the energy grid.

That, they argued, shows there is no public interest in the project.

HECA spokesperson Tiffany Rau countered the arguments.    “(The plant) is capable of providing 300 (net) megawatts of low-carbon power to the grid,” she said.

If the energy companies don’t need all that power, she said, the plant can use it to produce fertilizer.

“A power plant that generates energy for the energy grid is a benefit,” said Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt. “Your board has cancelled Williamson Act contracts for one megawatt of power.”

Oviatt’s office had recommended the cancellation of the Williamson Act agricultural preserve contract.

Farmers and project opponents argued that the project draws heavily on Kern County’s depleted water supplies, eats up prime farmland and threatens families and the community of Tupman.

Neighbor and farmer John Romanini argued that project proponents have not shown they have no reasonable alternative site.

“Their number one alternative site was my land and they never contacted me” to explore the possibility of using his land, he said.

But another member of the Romanini family said the family has made it clear it has no intention of selling and the biggest fear is that, if the project develops a railroad connection, its land would be taken by the federal government to facilitate the rail link.

Local environmental leader Gordon Nipp said a raft of impacts — to water, farmland, transportation and waste control — have not been and cannot be offset.

Leaders from a series of trade unions, chambers of commerce and economic development organizations spoke in support of the project.

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