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AEHI: A Community Organizer’s Story

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My name is Liz Woodruff. I was new to the Snake River Alliance staff in spring 2008 as Alternate Energy Holdings (AEHI) was moving up river from Owyhee to Elmore County. At the very first meeting held by AEHI in Elmore County, at Mountain Home High School, I sat next to a quiet gentleman who had the look of a farmer.

After the meeting, I introduced myself to him and found that he was indeed an area landowner with property adjacent to the proposed plant. His family had been farming that land for potatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa and other crops for four generations.  He was eager to learn more about the problems with the proposal, and he was gravely concerned about the impact the proposed plant would have on his quality of life and the lives of his three children, wife and mother, all of whom called the property home.

He invited the entire Alliance staff out to his beautiful place near Hammett, Idaho. Driving in his pickup across the rolling, green fields that blanket the edges of the Snake River, it was clear to all of us that a nuclear reactor did not belong here.  Soon enough that farmer was one of my dearest friends, and my children were playing in his fields and spotting rattlesnakes under his boot. We would visit the farm often, sometimes leaving with buckets of cherries or mulberries.

As the hearings on AEHI’s proposal continued, that farmer helped us organize other people in the vicinity, and soon enough we had a core group of about 20 people within a five-mile radius of the proposed plant, and a more extended group of 100. Another neighbor of the proposed plant was the compassionate matriarch of a fourth generation potato farming family. She had become dedicated to stopping the proposal in the community she loved when, at the second meeting held by AEHI in Glenn’s Ferry, Don Gillispie responded to her concerns with the threat that he was going to “own her front yard.”

We met weekly in supporters’ homes for several months, sharing information and coordinating research and testimony, as the people of Elmore County came together at the height of planting and harvest to protect their farmland.

The fruit of their efforts was the Elmore County Planning and Zoning Commission’s rejection, in a 4-2 decision, of AEHI’s proposal to rezone prime agricultural land to heavy industrial use for the purpose of building a nuclear power plant.  Although the County Commission extended the debate into the spring and summer of 2009, with more hearings that even included an AEHI “Jobs Fair” outside the hearing doors, the community was tenacious in its opposition. The County Commission ultimately decided to reject an amendment to the comprehensive plan and cancel the rezone application.

In October of this year, the people of Elmore County and the Snake River Alliance celebrated AEHI’s departure from this beautiful, unpretentious, vibrant part of Idaho with a party on the banks of the Snake River.

While the victory in Elmore County was sweet, it was also tainted by the fact that AEHI had been pushing its bad idea in Payette County for over a year when the Elmore application finally came to a halt. Organizing opposition in two counties at once was both difficult and frustrating, since we knew early on that AEHI didn’t have its finances or facts straight. We tried to inform the media, state and federal financial regulators, and the local decision makers, but AEHI had managed to convince many—though thankfully not all—that our opposition was based on anti-nuclear ideology.

And in fact, our arguments were markedly not ideological. We pointed out that AEHI’s water use numbers were far too low; we raised concerns about the feasibility of the company acquiring financing for the project, given their startlingly inadequate financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); we pointed to the false statements the company made about access to transmission and other infrastructure; and we continually poked holes in its promises of job growth and economic development. Nevertheless, AEHI steam-rolled into Payette County, and quickly listed the area’s mayors as supporters.

Even as we began to organize in Payette County, the community also prepared testimony to oppose AEHI’s comprehensive plan amendment. When the County Commission voted to amend the comprehensive plan in spring 2009 and then moved forward with AEHI’s rezone application this past fall, we once again worked with area residents. As the winter holidays approached, we travelled to the home of a land owner in Payette to help area residents gear up for public testimony, which they delivered beautifully at a public hearing on December 2. In spite of their and our testimony calling for rejection of AEHI’s rezone request, the Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval on December 9. But we continued to be convinced that AEHI didn’t have a chance of accessing water rights, and we hoped that financial regulators would eventually put a stop to the scurrilous proposal.

On December 14 we got word that the SEC had barred trading on AEHI’s penny stock because of concerns about its financial practices. Even better was the news of December 16, when the SEC filed extensive fraud charges against AEHI in federal court. The SEC echoed what we had been saying for more than three years: It charged AEHI with, among other things, “raising millions of dollars from individual investors in Idaho, elsewhere in the U.S., and Asia by making misleading statements about the viability of AEHI, which has no realistic possibility of building a multi-billion dollar nuclear reactor.”

The SEC’s move sent a bright ray of light through a dark cloud of dishonesty. But that cloud was already lined with the silver of the relationships we built, the truths we uncovered and the rural lands we helped protect. For all of this, the Snake River Alliance is grateful.

 

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