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Chris Romanini

My family is the fourth generation to farm in the Buttonwillow area. Our future is under threat today because of a risky and experimental coal-fired power plant called Hydrogen Energy California, which is proposed near our farm. Despite the fancy and misleading name, it's just another dirty coal plant aimed for our backyard.

Farmers like me see huge problems with this experimental coal project proposed by Massachusetts-based SCS Energy. The project would bring coal from New Mexico to a depot outside of Bakersfield by diesel train. Then HECA wants to put a rail spur through our farms to its site to deliver this coal. Rail would cut up our ranches, destroy reliable water wells and jeopardize our farming practices. And we wonder about the drop of nuts caused by a train rumbling past a mature pistachio orchard.

Without a rail spur, it appears close to 1,000 HECA vehicles will pass by daily on small country roads spewing their toxics on our food crops. Then there's the dust stirred up by the volume of traffic that will smother plants and slow production.

Whichever way the coal gets to the plant, it's going to drink a lot of precious water. This is the thirstiest power plant proposed in California in over a decade, using 4,600 gallons of water every minute and draining precious Kern County groundwater -- water that, mind you, is vital for agriculture. The threat that farmers could have less water because of such abuse should be unthinkable.

Finally, there's all the toxic pollution from its coal stew. We already have the worst air in the nation and HECA will exceed impact levels for many pollutants. The rail cars won't be covered, meaning that coal dust will blow off the backs and leave our neighborhoods and farms coated with toxic dust. The trucks will also dirty our air. Farmers and their workers will be exposed to higher health risks due to working daily near HECA's toxic emissions.

Beyond our own health, we're concerned about the impact on our crops. Particulate pollution in the air decreases crop production. And food safety. What would happen to our pistachios, cherries, almonds, grapes, or alfalfa industry if mercury or another toxic got into them?

These questions were pushed aside last week when the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued a draft air permit. HECA has told us all not to worry and that this project will "ensure a net air quality benefit" because of all the pollution offsets they're buying. The problem is it's buying offsets for emissions reductions that happened as far back as 1979, a loophole that means that it's taking credit for improvements to our air that happened more than 30 years ago! HECA is insulting our intelligence if it expects us to be reassured.

As you can see, there are a lot of unanswered questions. We have expressed our concerns to HECA at private meetings, workshops, and in writing, and for the most part our concerns have been trivialized. It does not respect us or give truthful answers. The project is not showing itself to be a good neighbor, and we cannot believe HECA would be an asset to Kern County.

We are pleased that Kern is a leader in renewable energy in California with solar and wind. No county is producing more electricity in the state than Kern. We are already doing our part for energy, and we are doing it responsibly. It makes no sense to risk our established agricultural economy with an unproven technology that will pollute our air, jeopardize food safety and farm production, fill our dumps with HECA's waste, and drain our precious groundwater.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors will review the project on Feb. 26. I implore of our local officials: Please tell the California Energy Commission no thanks -- the Board of Supervisors thinks HECA is wrong for Kern County.

Chris Romanini, along with her husband, farms under the name John Romanini and Sons. Their Buttonwillow farm produces pistachios, almonds, alfalfa and cotton. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.