The West’s largest green energy storage project would destroy a Yakama sacred site. Now, the nation is fighting back.

By Sarah Sax/High Country News

Jeremy Takala, a Yakama citizen, was fishing for sockeye and summer chinook a few years ago, just downstream from the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. He was accompanied by a Yakama elder, who pointed to a high ridge towering above them covered in juniper bushes, shrubs and grasses that plunged dramatically into the river over 2,000 feet below. The site is called Pushpum, or Juniper Point, and it is remembered in Yakama legend as a place of refuge for the members of Kah-milt-pa, or the Rock Creek Band. The Yakama, who consider the area sacred, use it for ceremonies and for collecting almost three dozen different kinds of roots, flowers and shrubs.

Takala listened as the elder recounted the area’s history and explained the importance of the plants. “I remember him telling me that I have to keep fighting to protect that mountain for the future generations, so that they can continue to gather the first foods and medicines,” Takala said.

Now the site, located 20 miles south of Goldendale, Washington, is imperiled. Boston-based Rye Development is eyeing it for the West’s largest pumped hydropower storage project, a kind of giant battery that would help the Northwest decarbonize its power grid. And that raises a fundamental question: Will the renewable energy revolution break with the fossil fuel industry’s long history of ignoring treaty rights for the sake of development — or will it become yet another venue for environmental injustice?

Northwestern states have made ambitious pledges to reduce their fossil fuel dependence. That means that thousands of megawatts of coal and gas power will have to be replaced across the region, requiring a huge amount of new energy construction — and land. Washington’s State Energy Strategy estimates that by the middle of the century, the state will need at least 12 gigawatts of new solar additions, 4 gigawatts of offshore wind, and 2 gigawatts of onshore wind. (The average size of a coal plant in the U.S. is about 0.6 gigawatts; the biggest offshore wind farm in the world, Hornsea One, can generate up to 1.2 gigawatts.)

The Columbia River Basin is key to this development; it’s already a renewable energy corridor, with 274 dams on the Columbia and its tributaries, which currently produce over half of the Northwest’s electricity, and hundreds of wind turbines that line the area’s steep river banks and gorges. Counties like Klickitat, where the Goldendale project would be located, have sought to attract and expedite renewable energy development by, for example, conducting feasibility studies for projects such as pumped energy storage.

In 2017, Rye Development approached Klickitat County and the local public utility district to see if it could secure the necessary water rights and land leases. Situated on over 680 acres of land, most of which is owned by a company in charge of a defunct aluminum smelter by the river, the $2 billion project would consist of two 60-acre reservoirs, separated by 2,100 feet of elevation and a tunnel fitted with turbines. During times of excess energy, water would be pumped up to the higher reservoir. And during times of high demand when solar or wind energy aren’t available, water would be released to the lower reservoir, generating power as it flows through the turbines. According to Rye, it could store 1.2 gigawatts of energy — a significant chunk of Washington’s clean power needs. 

THE CONFEDERATED TRIBES and Bands of the Yakama Nation strongly oppose the project. Constructing the storage system would essentially destroy Pushpum: The place would have to be blasted to create the two reservoirs and to carve a tunnel through the hillside. This would irreversibly damage or impact at least nine culturally significant sites found in the Pushpum area, including important archaeological and ceremonial areas, burial petroglyphs, and fishing and food-gathering locations, according to a cultural resources study the Yakama conducted in 2019 as well as several other previous assessments.

“We do want to see green energy projects because we’re salmon people, and we know that climate change is real,” said Phil Rigdon, superintendent of the Yakama Nation’s Natural Resources Department. “But we don’t want them on the backs of the resources we depend upon.”

It’s not the first time the nation has been asked to sacrifice important cultural sites for the greater good of the state, said Takala, an elected Yakama Nation councilmember who serves on the tribe’s legislative and fish and wildlife committees. The landscape around the Yakama Reservation is studded with what he calls “sacrifice zones”: Between 1933 and 1971, the U.S. built four major dams on the Lower Columbia River, including the John Day Dam, destroying fishing sites and, in some cases, settlements. The abandoned aluminum smelter is still leaking toxins at the site where the Goldendale project’s lower reservoir would be constructed. Wind turbines from the nearby Goodnoe Hills wind farm have restricted access to hunting and gathering sites. Proposed large-scale solar farms would further limit tribal members’ ability to gather roots, berries and medicine. Meanwhile, for decades, the Yakama Nation has been fighting for cleanup at the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear production facility just a few dozen miles from the reservation.

The Goldendale project is also an example of what tribal members like Takala, as well as other tribes, scholars and the Government Accountability Office, consider a long history of inadequate and inconsistent tribal consultation. Around a third of Washington state falls under the Treaty of 1855, signed by the 14 tribes and bands that were confederated into the Yakama Nation. They ceded almost 11 million acres to the U.S. government, but retained the right to fish, hunt and gather food on those lands. Federal law requires that the Yakama Nation be consulted on projects that would impact its cultural and environmental resources.

But that consultation is often reduced to a single meeting or an email rather than any meaningful engagement with tribes, said Elaine Harvey, a biologist with Yakama Nation Fisheries and a member of the Kah-milt-pa Band. The Yakama Nation has declared that the siting of the project is inappropriate since it first formally found out about it in October 2017, after Rye Development applied for a preliminary federal permit. The Yakama Council sent letters to Rye Development and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2018 and 2019, noting the detrimental impacts the project would have on an irreplaceable cultural site and arguing that Rye’s application omitted crucial information, including the results of a 2013 survey that clearly identified the site as being culturally important.

The Yakama Tribal Council raised this concern when Rye Development first consulted with them in September 2018, but its concerns went unaddressed. Instead, the company agreed to hire tribal botanists and archaeologists to study mitigation options, even though the tribe has stated that mitigation of such a sacred site isn’t an option, and that having tribal scientists included in the project does not resolve their concerns.

Erik Steimle, vice president of project development for Rye Development, said that the company has gone “above and beyond” the federally mandated consultation process. But the baseline isn’t exactly high. According to the draft license application submitted to FERC in 2019, the agency wrote to the leaders of the Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes in March 2019, requesting consultation on the project. Upon receiving no reply, they filed an internal telephone memo noting their attempts, and the permitting process went on.

THE YAKAMA NATION’S position is clear: Tribes should be included early in a project’s development and have significant input on the location before it’s finalized. “Only the Yakama Nation can determine what is culturally significant to us,” Takala said. “How do you define consultation. Is it just a checkbox?” If the tribe says no, Takala added, then the project shouldn’t go forward.

This would be a step toward a consent-based system. Today, even though the federal government must consult tribes on developments that affect them, the project can proceed regardless of whether tribes agree. Consent, however, would mean that tribes could stop developments that harm their cultural, archaeological or sacred sites in unacceptable ways. That’s the standard enshrined in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, one that the U.S. originally voted against.

In 2021, 19 tribal nations in Washington, including the Yakama, wrote such a standard into Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s landmark Climate Commitment Act, which he signed into law in May. The bill caps and reduces greenhouse gas emissions and creates a fund to pay for clean energy projects. One section required that state or private developers secure tribal consent, rather than merely consultation, for energy projects that would significantly harm sacred sites. But at the very last minute, as he was signing the rest of the bill into law, Inslee vetoed that section.

The move was a “low blow,” said Takala, who provided input on the legislation, and it angered many tribal nations and their supporters, who felt that Inslee had courted them to help pass the bill and then tossed them aside. Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation, called it “the most egregious and shameless betrayal of a deal I have ever witnessed from a politician of any party, at any level.”

If Rye Development manages to obtain all the necessary permits, the Goldendale energy facility could be operational by 2028. But it’s just one of several proposed projects on treaty lands. And without meaningful consultation and consent, Takala worries that the outcome of the clean energy revolution will be no different than previous waves of energy development.

On Oct. 6, the Yakama Tribal Council met once again with Rye Development. That day, the council issued a resolution, affirming that not only did it oppose the Goldendale project, it would oppose all future energy projects that threaten, damage or destroy important cultural sites. “Cultural resources are not a renewable thing for us,” Takala said. “How much more of the land — our land — has to be sacrificed?”   

FEATURED IMAGE: River Miles: VI. 2020, oil on paper. Painter and printmaker James Lavadour is of Walla Walla descent and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Oregon, in the Columbia River Basin, where he grew up and still lives and works. He is best known for kinetic landscape paintings that evoke the powerful geological forces that shaped the earth of his homeland, the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. James told High Country News that his inspiration comes from his immersive experience with the land — the connection he feels between the movement of his hand, and the movement and energy of the land itself. The Umatilla Department of Natural Resources has said that the land around Pushpum is of religious and cultural significance to the tribe and has voiced strong concerns about the Goldendale Energy Storage Project to the Washington Department of Ecology. (Courtesy of James Lavadour & PDX CONTEMPORARY ART)

Sarah Sax is the climate justice fellow at High Country News currently living in rural Washington.