(EnviroNews Idaho) — Payette, Idaho — A heated and starkly divided public appeal hearing over a railway transportation facility, a.k.a. “bomb train station,” went down in Payette County Idaho on December 4, 2014. The highlights, EnviroNews Idaho’s in-depth report, and excerpts from the transcript are as follows:
Joli Eromenok: We are not going to be able to do our business there, and you guys told us that we could, by granting us, less than a year ago, that permit to build that kennel. It’s got radiant heat in it. It’s high tech. It’s top of the line, and we spent all our money on it. You guys let us do that, and then you turn right around and you put something there that’s going to put us out of business. This isn’t about weather or not we like Alta Mesa…
Like a politician running for office, oil and gas company Alta Mesa Idaho needs your vote. Well, not you personally, unless you happen to be a member of the Payette County Commission, or its quasi-judicial board the Payette County Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z).
On December 4, 2014 a public comment meeting of the county commissioners was packed to the gills surrounding three congruent appeals of a previously approved conditional use permit that gave the green light to Alta Mesa for a railway transportation station in New Plymouth, Idaho. By the time the night was over local citizens had experienced one of the largest, longest and most hotly contested meetings in Payette County history according to longtime county clerk Betty Dressen.
The rail spur facility, if ultimately approved, would allow for the loading of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and condensate, onto 18 railcars at a time, from six 90,000-gallon pressurized storage tanks and two more 5,000-barrel storage tanks for condensate.
Condensate is a product every bit as valuable as crude oil in today’s market, and evidence, including apparent flow tests observed by EnviroNews, would suggest that AM Idaho has tapped into the prized liquid out in the Little Willow patch.
One issue with condensate is that it is volatile – actually more explosive than run-of-the-mill crude oil – a problem that has created concern among area liberals and conservatives alike.
Pete Eromenok: So, our concerns are not unfounded, nor are they unproven. We are in the blast zone. So, any emergency response would be too late for us. If we were ever going to sell our home, we would ethically have to disclose this to any potential buyer. These risks were never disclosed by AMI in any form, at any time, and as far as we know they have not disclosed them to anyone else either. This conditional use permit is arbitrary and capricious, and in abuse of discretion. It is required of the council to look to neighboring uses, and to protect our safety, not just always rule in favor of AMI.
Todd Kramis: It’s not a matter of if the plant leaks hazardous material and contaminates the air, or the water or the soil. It’s not a matter of if the plant explodes. It’s not a matter of if the plant reduces adjacent property values. All of these and more are a matter of WHEN. Accidents happen, and they happen at every refinery in the world. Do not be so naive as to think (as the song goes) that it can’t happen here. WHEN this happens they will have lost all that they have built, and perhaps more — their very lives.
The planned facility has come to be known by local activists and concerned residents as the “bomb train station” due to the recently reiterated dangers of hauling condensate in railcars. Several explosions in recent months, including a massive incident that killed 47 people and leveled a community in Canada last year, have brought the safety of moving petroleum products by rail into question.
Alta Mesa has been implementing natural gas infrastructure at breakneck speed in recent weeks, in an effort to enable the processing and export of its hydrocarbon products in what has boiled down to Idaho’s first, and very palpable gas patch battle.
The rail transport facility, previously approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission on September 11, 2014, may offer the most critical link in Alta Mesa’s plan to get their precious condensate to market effectively and economically as oil prices plummet around the country and the world.
The meeting got underway with a jam-packed appeal offered up by legendary dog trainer Pete Eromenok — a canine handler so revered that he has even worked with Governor “Butch” Otter’s pooch in the past.
Pete Eromenok: Most of our lifesavings have been invested in this place. A commissioner said that it was the perfect place for a hunting dog training kennel. We knew that and that’s why we bought the place. And that’s why our kennel was approved by this council. This property and my lease would be difficult to replicate.
The Eromenok’s live directly adjacent to the field that would ultimately contain the spur, as well as the massive storage tanks and other processing equipment. They say the plant will destroy their business and way of life while trampling the sanctuary offered by their property – land they say is uniquely suited to train hunting dogs.
Pete Ermonenok: I train hunting dogs for a living. So, when you train a dog, all the training is in a controlled environment. I have a very unique business and situation where I can take these dogs, almost on a daily basis, and put them in a real hunting situation because the place often brings in a lot of waterfowl. I train a lot of waterfowl dogs and the western ponds — it doesn’t freeze in the winter — right here… these here… they don’t freeze in the winter because they’re very low in the ground so it pulls in birds. So, that’s where I take the dogs and we jump birds, or we either put them over decoys, and we transition from a controlled environment to now a real live working situation. So, if I can’t utilize that right here, I’m going to loose that as far as transitioning dogs from conditioned responses to real live situations.
People turned out to the commissioner meeting in droves; both in support and opposition of the planned facility in what turned out to be one of the most divided public meetings we have ever seen at EnviroNews — literally.
With common townsfolk in opposition on one side, and mostly imported, paid Alta Mesa contract workers in favor on the other, the meeting went on for nearly five hours as person after person, young to old, came in front of the commission to voice their concerns.
Resident #1: What if it was your property? You have to be in their shoes. You have to take it like it was your property.
Paula Smith: I want to let you guys know that when my father passed away, he loved the ranch as well, and I’ve tried to uphold everything that he believes in, and that he loves so much about the place because it is beautiful. But unfortunately, he’s gone and Alta Mesa is here now, and they have brought an economy to myself, which isn’t a lot. We do have one well on my section, and one well on my sister’s section. We are for them coming in. We have respect for them.
Liz Johnson: I’ve only been a resident for two months. I moved from Duchesne, Utah near Vernal, Utah where I’m sitting on 10 acres that is virtually useless to me because I cannot put a well. My whole groundwater has been completely contaminated because of the oil boom and natural gas boom out there.
Citizen #2: This year, I’ve seen three more families relocated up here to be part of AM Idaho’s efforts. It’s fed my family. It’s fed a lot of families that I know.
Citizen #3: I’m loosing my property value getting out of here. I don’t own my mineral rights I already have to declare that. It’s only going to become more and more that way. I didn’t move here to live in an oilfield and it angers me to be pushed out and that’s how I feel that it’s happening to a lot of us.
Citizen #4: Safety’s nothing to take lightly and we don’t, and none of the gentlemen here working for the company do either.
Joe Morton: When Alta Mesa and the State of Idaho says “this will stimulate the economy,” who’s economy and how? Only Alta Mesa and others who have leased their mineral rights for a fraction of what they’re worth will realize the economic benefit. I have sent to you commissioners before with my original appeal — show me the money. The report from the Idaho Tax Commission shows for the duration of the state 117 well that’s been in production has netted the city of Payette County $387 there about, for a period of one-and-a-half years.
Resident #5: Nobody’s blown up. Our water doesn’t catch on fire. We’ve got… you know… it just… all the things that we hear — all the propaganda we hear, mainly from this current federal administration, it just isn’t there. It’s not true.
Derrick Pierce: In the event, I want to know that my kids that are there, when I’m on the other side of town at work and I know nothing about it, are safe and there is a plan. And I want to see it. Fair enough? I think all parents of that school… All three of our schools are in a really close proximity to the rails. If something derails or something like that, all the kids in our whole generation are at risk. That’s a pretty big risk. That’s a lot of cards to be holding all at once.
Citizen #6: I don’t know how intrusive they would be. The decompression plant is very very good looking as far as I’m concerned. I have a degree in construction management. Unless you’ve actually worked your dogs around one, I don’t know where you’d have a complaint.
Liz Amason: The oversight. I hope you saw the article in the Independent a while back when Pattie Young was interviewed about the seismic testers coming within 50 yards [feet], when it’s supposed to be 200 yards [feet] of thumping her property. And there was a watchdog company that Alta Mesa pays or contracts to make sure that they stay within the regulations. They may get watchdogs SOMETIMES while they’re putting this thing together, but when it’s all over with… check the information. Check the other areas. The fed, the states, the counties don’t have the money or the manpower to do the regular timely inspections and make sure. And they let them self-monitor. Well, come on people!
Paula Smith: The Eromenonks are fantastic people, but you know, nobody wants it next door to them. I guess I’m ok with it.
Marc Shigeta: You don’t live on the place?
Paula Smith: Well, I have a house on the place, but I rented it out.
Marc Shigeta: Ok.
Patrick Weiss: I’m sure there’s plenty out there. I mean, there’s obviously a good amount of people in here that want it on their property and right next to their home and their family. So, that’s my piece.
Anne-Marie Kelso: Thank you.
Citizen #7: This is the thing that everybody’s not looking at the big picture. They’re are just targeting one industry and saying “we don’t want it.” If you don’t want that, close the rail down because you’re putting everybody at harm with all the other products you are transferring that is also explosive. So, stand back and look at the big picture people.
Vice News Narrator: The volume of crude oil transported over North America’s rail-lines has exploded in number. Since 2008 there’s been more than a 4000% increase in crude oil traveling through communities in the United States and Canada — and not without problems. Trains hauling oil are derailing and exploding resulting in severe environmental damage, and more unsettling, human casualties.
At one point Shavone Hasse, daughter of recently jailed free-speech fracking activist Alma Hasse, plopped herself down smack-dab in the middle of team Alta Mesa with a thing or two to say.
Shavone Hasse: Alta Mesa just insinuated that ya’ll don’t have to follow your own comprehensive plan.
Larry Church: Hey, she doesn’t get to say anything.
Anne-Marie Kelso: Who’s yelling?
Crowd Member: Right there.
Ann-Marie Kelso: Ma’am, this is an official hearing. We need to follow procedure. If you can’t do that, we’re going to ask that you leave.
Citizen #2: Ya’ know, I’m a land owner. I’ve got a house out in Pennsylvania that they dynamite for coal all around us. I mean, it’s a dirty nasty thing. What’s being proposed here is an incredibly clean kind of energy. If these gentlemen here are in any way subject to some kind of benefit from the gas industry, so is everyone here! Everyone’s going to benefit. I mean, it bring jobs. It brings cheaper energy. And, it’s very clean. Yes accidents happen.
Many here expressed concern that the majority of proponents that spoke in favor of the previously approved “bomb train station” were little more than paid and imported Alta Mesa minions.
Liz Amason: [I don’t think] any of ’em have ever been to Payette County before they ever heard of Alta Mesa or worked for Alta Mesa. I don’t think any of ’em will be living here after the main part is done. (applause) All these people said they worked and lived around all these plants, all these other places, because they don’t stay there. They don’t know weather it’s safe or not for the longterm, because they’re not there for the long term.
Joe Weatherby: Mostly the only people that testified in favor of this are the people who work for Alta Mesa in one form or another — Not all, but most, and I think that if you look at the plan — look at the insurance issues — the fire, the police, and all those things — I think you guys need help.
At one point, after growing tiered of all of the paid Alta Mesa cheerleaders, Joli Eromenok, wife to Pete Eromenok, had to get up and remind the crowd that the hearing had nothing to do with how much people liked the company.
Joli Eromenok: This appeal is about the constitutionality of our home-dwelling and our business being put in jeopardy by a hazardous plant. That’s what this is truly about. That’s what this appeal’s about. [If] you guys want to do your own appeal, go ahead. You know, if you want to pickett for how much you love Alta Mesa that’s ok. you can go ahead and do that. (laughter)
Many at the meeting questioned the constitutionality of the Planning & Zoning Commission’s initial decision on the gas processing station.
Pete Eromenok: We have shown that our rights have been prejudiced and that a habitual pass was issued to AMI. This is in excess of the council’s authority, [and] in violation of our constitutional rights.
Joli Eromenok: Our constitutional right to hold property, and to hold the value of property is what is being violated here.
Casper Kramis: …nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
After 100-year-old WWII Vet Casper Kramis took a few minutes to remind the commissioners about a little thing called the U.S. Constitution, his son Todd put the commission on blast.
Todd Kramis: Your responsibility is to the people who make your paycheck. You work for them, not the oil and gas industry. You also have a responsibility to recuse yourselves when the decisions required have a direct conflict of interest. How many of your own property that have mineral rights? How many of you have already signed an agreement with AMI, or would directly profit from this plant being built?
Kramis’ testimony seemed to set off a chain-reaction where several other citizens also called out the commissioners concerning the fact that all three of them have indeed leased their mineral rights to the applicant – Alta Mesa Idaho.
Citizen #8: Almost every other county anywhere else in the United States… I know it’s going to be impossible but, most commissioners, planning and zoning, or county commissioners would have to excuse themselves from voting on aything because they receive financial interest in all of this. I don’t know what you can do because… I don’t know about Commissioner Church, but everybody else has received something or another from AMI. If you all excuse yourself there won’t be anybody left to vote. But, that’s generally what you do when you have a conflict of interest. So, that’s all I have to say. Thank you. (applause)
The meeting reached a climactic head when a man named Joe Weatherby decided it was time to lay down the gauntlet. When Weatherby stepped up to the plate, he took the kid mitts off with a strong rebuke and told the commissioners that their rubberstamp-method of hasty permit approvals “smelled fishy.”
Joe Weatherby: Many people dance around issues, I have a tendency to just say it. So, here goes: According to Black’s Law Dictionary corruption is defined as: “An impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle.” Bribery is defined as: “Any valuable thing given or promised, or any preferment, advantage, privilege or emolument given or promised corruptly or against the law as an inducement to any person acting in an official or public capacity to violate or forebear from his duty, or to improperly influence his behavior in the performance of such duty.” Now I can’t say for sure that there is bribery or corruption as I don’t have all the fact yet. But, anyone looking closely at the behavior of the Payette County Planning and Zoning on this application would surely say, as I do, that it certainly looks like there is. It looks that way because there are so many issues which simply don’t add up here, and the total lack of concern for the many many negative impact which will inevitably inert to Payette County citizens, most of which were brought up to Payette County officials, and as others have covered orally and in writing this evening. But, almost all of these very serious and very real concerns were dismissed out-of-hand by planning and zoning officials and their attorney Mr. (Bert) Osborn. This is particularly puzzling given that [a] planning and zoning commission is charged under Title 67-65 of Idaho code to “promote the health, safety and general welfare of the people of the state of Idaho.” And, further delineated in 13 further subparagraphs, which I would submit to you that all have been violated, in way or another, with the unwise hurried approval of this application. The Planning and Zoning Commission seems to be only interested in furthering the financial health of Alta Mesa, at the expense of a great many Payette County citizens. When you compare things required of other applicants, and given high consideration such as the requirements of the seed processor Nunhems, the P&Z approval of this application smells more than a little fishy. One might even say, it stinks to high heaven.
Commissioner Rudy Endrikat, recently voted out of office by his constituents, took offense to Weatherby’s comments and fired back.
Commissioner Rudy Endrikat: I guess I need to make one comment in regards to that. I’ve had 17 years with the county, 12 as a commissioner, 5 on Planning and Zoning, and I have never ever heard such a statement from one of our people testifying. Accusing P&Z of being bribed, or taking bribes, or county commissioners — and being corrupt — it’s totally off-base, and I’m very offended by it. You have no right. If you have absolutely proof, lay it out on the table.
Interestingly, Payette County prosecutor Anne-Marie Kelso who was moderating the meeting chose not to cut Weatherby off in his rebuke, although she did lay down the law afterwards.
Kelso: So, let me reiterate this is a conditional use permit hearing. We are here to talk about weather this facility should be placed on this piece of property or not. None of you would appreciate a personal attack on your character, and we’re not going to allow it here.
Crowd Member: But is it wrong?
Kelso: Don’t come in here and say “my opinion is,” and say things about people that you don’t know to be true. You wouldn’t like it, and I expect you to treat other people with respect as well.
Despite Endrikat’s rebuttal and Kelso having put her foot down, Joe Weatherby came to the table again and stuck to his guns.
Weatherby: I’m only looking at the situation as it has been handled in-fact, and nothing more, which you should be much more concerned about than I, or the other people that are here. I’m not the only one that has been whispering this ok, I just said it. I stand by my earlier comments that this whole process looks and smells very bad. I know planning and zoning has a difficult task at best, I’ve been there, but I have also seen what happens when people have a vested interest in the outcome without having the intestinal fortitude to announce their potential conflicts, per Idaho law, let alone recuse themselves. I’ve seen it first hand. I stand by the fact, that given the actual situation, and the way the process has been handled, given the numerous leases in place, and the refusal of P&Z commissioners to expose and explain their obvious conflict of interest, it looks very bad. I think you should consider changing your process. Someone needed to tell you what it looks like when a permit is handled in the manner it has been handled. Thank you.
Commissioner Larry Church: Can I make a comments.
Church: You’re not a resident of this county.
Weatherby: I was born in Payette.
Church: That doesn’t make you a resident.
Weatherby: No, that’s true.
Church: So, you don’t know that several years ago, we did all this. We had a technical review, we had all these people together to make an ordinance. We, as a county, years ago, voted to allow this industry into the county, and I don’t think we’re about to change our mind on that. The state took over, which we were kind of glad to see. They’ve embraced the industry. They say the industry is welcome. This was about where to locate a tank farm. We’re not going to go back and throw this industry out of the county and state. As bad as you want it, we’re not going to do it.
Unbeknownst to the commissioners was the fact that this Joe was no ordinary Joe at all. As a matter of fact, Weatherby is himself a former member of the nearby Owyhee County Planning and Zoning Commission and is all too familiar with corruption and collusion at the county level. As another matter of fact, Weatherby actually resigned from his position in disgust over what he claims was rampant corruption within the Owyhee P&Z concerning a now defunct and criminally indicted nuclear power scheme by the name of Alternate Energy Holding Inc., or AEHI.
The scam was never able to go the distance in Owyhee or Elmore counties, but was eventually embraced here in Payette County – something the commissioners apparently remember all too well as they even reminisced about it while patting P&Z chair Chad Henggeler on the back after he testified in a meeting on December 8, 2014. [Editor’s note: A correction to the transcript on this meeting date was made here.]
Weatherby says he felt compelled to step down from Owyhee’s P&Z at the time so he could be more open and vocal about the pervasive shenanigans he was witnessing. Today, he is known to have played an instrumental role in shining the light on myriad layers of corruption surrounding the nuclear scam.
Alta Mesa’s legal point-man for the meeting Michael Christian said he took offense to the notion that he or his comrades could be involved in bribery.
Church: You took an oath to tell the truth. The New Plymouth City Council voted unanimously to support this. Did you bribe them? (laughs)
Michael Christian: I said I wasn’t going to talk about this Commissioner Church but… I am offended at the suggestion that after all the work that I put into this, and that my client’s put into this, that… and in the profession that I’m in, it highly offends me that someone would suggest that I am corrupt, or that I lied, or that I gave you anything, or any other person anything in order to obtain your vote. So, the answer is NO.
Christian also took to rendering legal advise, not only to Alta Mesa, but directly to the commissioners in an effort to convince them that they were totally fine, safe and in the clear regarding even a potential conflict of interest.
Christian: I want to touch on this issue of conflict of interest which was raised in the appeal. It was touched on by I think Mr. Weatherby again. I hesitate to talk about it again because I got pretty hot the last time I started but… The technical issue here is the allegation that [if] someone has a lease ANYWHERE in the county automatically disqualifies them from considering any application that involves us. That, I submit to you and I’ve written it in the submittal that I’ve filed with you — that is wrong as a matter of law. There is no evidence, there has been no allegation even made, that any member of the Commission, or any member of your body has a lease on which a well has been drilled which will be connected to this facility. There is certainly no allegation, because it’s not true obviously — there is no allegation or evidence that anybody on that commission owns any interest in the property on which we are building that facility, or will get a direct economic benefit from it. They don’t have an economic interest in it. There is no evidence, or even an allegation, that any person that has signed a lease with us will have a well drilled on their property, or have their property be included in a drilling unit which might ultimately be, if it were a successful well, hooked up to this system. My point it that any allegation of an economic interest of anybody on the Commission, or on this board, is absolute rank speculation. So, as a matter of law, in my opinion, there is no conflict of interest.
Attorney Natalie Havlina was on the scene representing the community non-profit group Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, a.k.a. ICARE, in a congruent appeal over the facility. Sufficed to say, she did not agree with Mr. Christian’s views.
Natalie Havlina: Looking back to this issue of conflict of interest. I didn’t know we would have gone over this quite so much by this point when I put together the powerpoint. So, please forgive the overlap. Again, I provided you with a statute. I believe we made reference to the language in the statute which is that a conflict of interest exists if there is an economic interest. And, let’s back up for just a second here. The statute doesn’t say… [the] statute prohibiting someone from participating in a decision in which they have an economic interest isn’t a personal attack on anyone in particular. It’s a procedural safeguard that reflects the fact that people are emotional, and it can be very difficult to be objective, however well-intentioned one might be — it can be very difficult to be objective when one has a potential financial interest in something, especially when the person bringing you the question is a business partner of yours, in some way, shape or form. And, that is the concern that ICARE, and many others that we’ve heard from have about what happened before the Planning and Zoning Commission. The concern being, that at least three, and I believe there are more but, ICARE’s written appeal discusses three individuals have property that was leased as of the day that they issued that oral decision on September 11th, and I’ve summarized those for you there on the right of that slide. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Mr. Christian’s argument about: you know, this is speculative, just because someone leases doesn’t mean that they are going to get any financial benefit etc. etc. But, investments are by their nature speculative. For instance, if a judge owns stock in a company, it’s speculative that that stock is going to make him or her any money, but that judge should still recuse him or herself from a decision that involves the company in which he or she owns stock.
Kit Kamo: At this time we have about 200 people working in the industry here. Many of these jobs are related to the construction of the infrastructure. According to the Idaho Labor Economist, “the average annual earnings for a construction-type job is $64,762, while extraction-type jobs have an average earnings of of $51,687. The average wage in Payette County is only $32,020. The industry wages are almost double our county wages.
In what some considered a serious gaffe that had people in the crowd whispering, Christian revealed the truth about who all of these promised high-paying jobs would really be going to.
Christian: The statement’s been made a couple of times: Well, the only people here that are testifying on behalf of Alta Mesa are people who are paid by them. I think Commissioner Church pointed out that’s not true, but in a sense, it’s exactly the point. We have created jobs — and we will continue to create jobs — for people who are moving their families here.
A few minutes later, Christian made a cutting remark directed at ICARE, pretending he had no idea even what it was. He then turned around in the very next sentence and explained exactly what it was.
Christian: It was required to set forth why ICARE (whatever that is), is an aggrieved person. It does not… ICARE is an Idaho non-profit organization that supports and promotes sustainable farming, the development of strong local and regional foodsheds, transparency and accountability in land-use-planning, regulation and enforcement, equitable global trade and sane domestic agricultural policy. ICARE’s members live, work, own property and recreate in southwestern Idaho, including Payette County.
The meeting drug on for hours as piles of testimony were logged into record. By the time the hearing was ready to conclude, the commissioners seemed a bit overwhelmed by everything they had heard – so much so that they opted to not make a ruling that night in front of the divided crowd — instead putting their vote over until after the New Year.
The decision is now scheduled for January 5, 2015, and people from both sides are eagerly waiting in anticipation – wondering weather Pete Ermonenok’s way of life will be crushed and if Alta Mesa Idaho will be able to open the floodgates on what is now shaping up to be one of the most contentious issues in the county’s recent history.
While currently sitting at a purported $350 million in the hole and carrying a “non-investment” grade and a “negative” rating on Moody’s Investor Service, Alta Mesa Idaho is doing everything in its power to get into high gear and to get the train wheels turning. Without the critical rail spur providing an easy road to market, that may be a difficult row to hoe.
Like a completely committed Texas Holdem player who’s got all their chips in at the table — if one thing is for sure, it’s that Alta Mesa Idaho has no intention of packing up and going home any time soon.
For EnviroNews Idaho – Emerson Urry – Payette.
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