Aspen hydro supporters go into attack mode
October 17, 2012
ASPEN – Some long-missing passion was injected into the debate over Aspen’s Castle Creek hydroelectric project at a political forum Tuesday, with supporters employing the offensive game plan that has been typical of the critics for the past two years.
Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Co., and Randy Udall, an energy expert and former director of the Carbondale-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency, took turns in taking sharp aim at their opponents during the hour-long event at the Limelight Hotel moderated by former Mayor Helen Klanderud. The project critics were represented by Matt Rice, state director of the nonprofit group American Rivers, and local resident Maurice Emmer, who led a petition drive earlier this year that effectively forced the city to put a hydropower advisory question on the Nov. 6 ballot.
For the past year, Emmer’s protests over the project have been largely related to what he sees as fiscal mismanagement. Originally designed as a $6.2 million project, cost overruns have led to a new estimate of $10.5 million. The city has already spent $6.9 million and wants the voters’ blessings to proceed with the remaining $3.6 million it says is needed to complete the job.
“If you want to fault the city, there were some cost overruns,” Udall said. “Some of the cost overruns, a big chunk of it, are due to the delays foisted on the project by the opponents. You have the scientists on one side, and you have the propagandists on the other.”
Schendler suggested that the critics’ arguments weren’t based in reality. He pointed to opponent statements that the city would be better off increasing its hydropower production at Ruedi Reservoir than pursuing a new facility that utilizes water from Maroon and Castle creeks.
“You have a gentleman here who’s presenting an idea that’s technically infeasible as a solution,” he said. “You can’t put another turbine at Ruedi. It sounds great, but there’s not water capacity to do it. So it’s disingenuous to throw out a solution when it’s technically impossible.”
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Emmer responded that he didn’t advocate another turbine as something that ought to be done.
“I suggested it as something that should be considered along with many other options,” he said.
Rice then defended the notion that other options were available to allow increased power generation at Ruedi.
“There is opportunity there. To say that it’s infeasible is simply not correct,” he said.
Early in the forum, Udall challenged the audience to think about the hydroelectric project on the basis of its own merits and the good it would do for the community, replacing the city’s reliance on coal-fired power with a clean, long-term, renewable energy source.
He said the ballot item, officially labeled Referendum 2C, should not be opposed simply because Mayor Mick Ireland is a strong advocate. Though Ireland, who is serving his third term at the helm of the city, has won many elections over the years at the county and city level, it’s common knowledge that he also has many community critics who tend to oppose him no matter what the Democrat supports or proposes.
“You may have issues with Mick Ireland,” Udall said. “A very well-funded propaganda campaign has happened here over the last two years arguing that the city can’t be trusted. Well, if you have issues with Mick, pick a number and get in line. Because people have had issues with Mick for over 30 years.”
Ireland understands that big money can warp a community and pollute its politics, Udall said, a reference to the widespread belief among the project’s supporters that billionaire resident Bill Koch has behind-the-scenes influence on the battle, pouring money into the fight against City Hall with anonymous donations to nonprofit groups.
“My choice is to either go with (Ireland and former longtime utilities director Phil Overeynder) or go with Bill Koch, who is suing the city right now, arguing that we long ago abandoned our rights to make hydropower with water from Castle Creek,” Udall said.
He said communities across Colorado would be champing at the bit to produce hydroelectric power if they had resources such as Maroon and Castle creeks.
“If we had this kind of hydro opportunity in Carbondale, we’d be leaping with glee. We’d be exuberant,” Udall said. “This is the wave of the future, and it’s our legacy of the past.”
Udall said that as long as he’s dealt with the city of Aspen, for more than 30 years, local officials have focused on environmental protections.
“This claim now, that Mick and (others) are conspiring to ruin these precious streams, just strikes me as foolhardy, and only the most gullible citizen would go for that,” he said. “You’d have to be a dumb trout indeed to think that the city’s mission here is to destroy 30 years of environmental protection. I don’t buy it.”
Responding to the question that the city failed to perform adequate engineering studies before embarking on the hydroelectric initiative, Schendler framed the query as a ruse.
“This is not complicated,” he said. “When we (Skico) built ours at Snowmass, on Fanny Hill, we just bought the equipment and put it in. This is not radical engineering. Aspen’s been doing it for (many) years. It’s kind of an odd question to ask.”
Emmer had his retorts, as well. He attempted to mock project supporters a couple of times, especially when they spoke of the city’s high-minded goals in combating global warming and focusing their future attentions on renewable energy sources.
After Udall commented that “the earth has resilience that the sky has not” – a reference to the natural ability of streams to deal with changing circumstances – Emmer suggested that supporters were trying to make emotional appeals that had little place in the debate.
“I just went through two more hankies on that one,” he replied.
Emmer faulted the city for failing to study alternatives to hydropower such solar and wind power.
“The city is the advocate of this project,” he said. “The city bears the burden of persuading citizens that the project should be completed. We question the effects of this project on the streams. That is our major concern about the project.”
Emmer said when he asked city officials what alternatives to hydropower they studied, he got no answer.
“It’s easy to talk in the abstract about whether this alternative or that alternative would work,” he said. “It’s easier for the city simply to do the studies and find out and compare the pros and cons. No, they focused on this, they said we’re determined to do this, and we’re not going to do anything else.”
Schendler said it was the project opponents who were being purely theoretical.
“What we have here is a situation where you have (critics) saying, put in a turbine at Ruedi! Put in 60,000 (energy-efficient) light bulbs! Randy (Udall) and I have been developing clean power for more than 30 years. We’ve looked at everything,” Schendler said.
“These guys don’t know what they’re talking about,” Schendler added.
Prior to the forum on the city’s hydropower ballot question, two proponents of another local election item spoke to a small audience. Referendum 2B, which would increase the city’s sales tax by 0.3 percent to raise money for the financially strapped Aspen School District, was touted by Aspen Education Foundation interim director Robin Hamill, along with Kate Fuentes, the district’s CFO.
No one at the forum represented opposition to Referendum 2B, which seeks to create a separate and independent entity that would disperse the extra sales-tax revenue to the district for specific needs.