Managing Development for the Benefit of the Community

by Eric Montoya Reyes, Los Amigos de la Comunidad

I am a long time community advocate for the underserved and am currently Executive Director of the non-profit Los Amigos de la Comunidad, Inc, an advocacy and capacity building environmental and economic justice organization based in the Imperial Valley. In this capacity, I have been involved in the very public dialogue, research, outreach and informational aspects of the proposed Lithium Valley development to grasp the magnitude of, and prepare our community for, the development with open and informed eyes. With years of experience, I am cautiously optimistic and looking at a "glass half full", based on the information I have been able to gather, but there are many unknowns at this point. The “Yellow Gold Rush”, as lithium development in the Imperial Valley is called, is a double edged sword for the residents of our rural, underserved, and often neglected community. The frenzied rush by industry developers and the intense state and federal government interest at a level never seen before locally has drawn the attention of the residents. The past history of our community being exploited for its resources, natural and human, is a difficult barrier to overcome for community buy-in.

It is easy for those not from here to say that this is the time to let the past go and move forward into the new and transformative lithium industry. The Imperial Valley is potentially at the forefront, with its large lithium deposits in and around the Salton Sea. But people who do not live here have not suffered in the damaged air basin that has been out of compliance for generations in Particulate Matter (PM) 10 and 2.5. Our community has the highest asthma, respiratory problems, and heart attack rate in California, and is among the top in the nation.

We are promised that the lithium deposits will be extracted in the most environmentally neutral process known to the industry, with geothermal brine being used in a “closed loop” process within the geothermal piping. We are promised that the horrific history of lithium mining in other parts of the world, the open pit mining and open pond filtration systems that kill the surrounding area and communities, are not part of the new technology. This not-yet-perfected technology will supposedly protect the workers, the environment, and surrounding communities from environmental contamination that lasts for generations.

In response, it is easy for the local community to say “here we go again”, as it has previously been promised transformative propositions (mechanical agriculture, never-developed manufacturing plants, solar farms, windmills etc…..), only to see little change, few local benefits, and continued degradation of the community. It is easy for the community to look at this development in a wary and negative manner, and ask what is different from all of the other promises. It is also easy for the local community to believe they will not be hired for the best jobs and they will not reap the benefits of the wealth created by lithium mining. This response is easy to understand in a county with the highest unemployment rate and lowest per capita income in the state.

Our community will not believe that this industry will even be developed until they see it happen, with massive amounts of never-before-seen equipment, warehousing, manufacturing plants and actual job creation that includes locals. It will then not believe it is transformational until it sees community benefits, including new businesses with good paying jobs, work training and education specialization, parks, improved schools, infrastructure and the basic amenities that other communities have.

The Receding Salton Sea

Photo by Roy Forantes

Receding Salton Sea

The proposed lithium development does not currently offer any true insight as to how it will transform the community from which it will derive its potentially massive profits. The basic quality of life issues that must be addressed include the following:

1) Environmental degradation that threatens the very existence of the community. The receding Salton Sea will be further disturbed by less inflow of water into it. In addition, the construction phase will likely create toxic, pesticide-laden dust plumes that winds will carry into the surrounding communities. Previous mitigation plans have never been sufficient to address the continued assault on our air quality.

2) The massive infrastructure needs of Imperial County, especially in the lithium valley development area. The lack of infrastructure has been a generational impediment to growth in our community. The proposed world-class industrial investments are in stark contrast to our almost third world infrastructure, including wooden bridges, two way traffic highways, poor traffic planning, and damaged roads incapable of handling the transportation needs of the proposed industry.

3) Hiring provisions that guarantee jobs to local residents. These must include training and investments in workforce development. Residents need to be included in the recruitment process for the coming jobs at all phases and trained for those jobs.The local hire provisions should include Project Labor Agreements in construction phases, pre-apprenticeship opportunities, and massive workforce investment and training for locals to address our community’s poor workforce base skill sets.

4) Benefits to improve the amenities and the quality of life of our community. Critical to this is health care at all levels, including hospitals, child care, elderly care and specialized health care. Imperial County has the lowest per capita physician-to-patient ratio in California and few specialized care facilities or practitioners. Other benefits should address quality of life amenities like cultural centers, parks and recreation centers, and business.

We must be vigilant in ensuring that lithium development follows all rules and regulations to ensure the safest and least damaging process possible. There must be no negotiating for offsets or incentives on those principles.  We must also ensure the community will be at the table for benefits from the economic boom being foreseen by investors and developers.  I will continue to cautiously view this development as a “glass half full” until proven wrong; I hope I never will be!

Eric Montoya Reyes is currently a member of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District Appeals Panel, reviewing and voting on cases and violations; a member of the Imperial Irrigation District Energy Consumers Advisory committee, ensuring equity in the energy issues facing our community; has participated in the Imperial County Redistricting Committee and the Imperial Valley Community College Redistricting Committee; and is an active participant in local and state initiatives with elected officials and agencies.