Security in America has become a worrisome national pastime to the point of being the butt of many a joke. So it may not come as a surprise, but there’s a place in Utah where you may actually be harassed by security if you are taking pictures at a roadside-advertised “Scenic Turnout 1/4 Mile” ahead turnout. And when you get there, security may tell you that your picture-taking is “against company policy,” tell you that they’re concerned that you’re a terrorist (not assuming you’re a tourist), and/or that pointing your camera in certain directions has raised “internal alarms all the way up to the Vice-President.” I was told all of these things… and I was standing on public land along Utah Highway 31 in Huntington Canyon.
Okay, enough with burying the lede… at this location in Huntington Canyon is the PacifiCorp Huntington Plant, a coal-fired power plant, and the overzealous security bleeding into the public streets are employed by none other than billionaire Warren Buffett, as a subsidiary of Birkshire Hathaway Energy. Someone should inform Mr. Buffett’s security that there are already more than a few photos of his power plant already online.
This canyon, in fact, is on the Visit Utah (the very official Utah Office of Tourism, which is itself an office within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development) website map as an attraction for climbing and bouldering. I guess photography is verboten? Maybe it’s a given? It’s Utah! The ridiculousness of banning photography from the public highway next to the Huntington Plant is most clearly understood when you realize that the State of Utah actively advertises the highway I was photographing along as an official Utah Scenic Byway, and that this one is called “The Energy Loop: Huntington/Eccles National Scenic Byway.” You read that right… The Energy Loop.
You will see signs for this “Energy Byway” along the road, too. But no warnings that you may be considered a terrorist for pointing your camera at any energy infrastructure, with security coming out and driving a half-mile down the road to tell you to put your camera away, while they ask your name, write down your license plate number and converse with a centralized dispatch over handheld radios (this really happened). It would seem that energy pride has given way to energy shame in Emery County where these plants are located. Or energy protectionism.
If you’re the type of person or family who wants to tour America’s energy infrastructure, and you seek out scenic byways on long road trips like the one in Utah called “The Energy Loop,” you might be in for a surprise when you or little Tommy or Jane pick up a camera to photograph it. In fact, in my tour of America’s energy infrastructure across 11 western states this past May and June, there were zero fossil fuel-fired power plants that didn’t have security present who either spoke about or harassed me for the topic of terrorism, and stating emphatically that photography is not allowed or against company policy, and I needed to leave that instant.
Gee, it almost seems like they’re trying to hide something.
You have to admit, though, that the coal industry has been running the gauntlet of regulation restrictions, lawsuits, and a dwindlingly favorable economy that is causing bankruptcies en masse. Terrorism, in fact, is the least of their problems, unless there’s classified intelligence revealing otherwise that isn’t public knowledge, and Joe and Jill Public are presumed guilty before proven innocent by security who can’t differentiate who is whom and prefer to start conversations with allusions and accusations. “They” might be feeling a little defensive.
Sierra Club named enemy #1
Perhaps that is why, when I visited the Hunter Power Plant, another coal-fired station just 21 miles to the southeast, near Castle Dale, I was asked by security there (in addition to all of the above security questions I also heard at the Huntington Plant) why I was taking photos. Why would a front-line security guard be asking someone stopping by the highway why they were taking photos? I asked the security guard. Not quite tight-lipped, she said that Sierra Club had recently been around taking photographs of their operations, and that there was a lawsuit between them.
“You don’t work for Sierra Club, do you?” She asked over her shoulder as she was walking back to her truck.
“No, I do not work for Sierra Club,” I replied, truthfully stating fact, because my employment with Sierra Club had ended about a year earlier. Her response was a giggle as she got in her truck and watched me leave.
Sierra Club has one of the most successful environmental campaigns that causes courts to enforce environmental regulations on coal operations, and heavily influences companies and investors in these companies to shut them down. In fact, only a few hours before visiting both the Hunter and Huntington plants (in that order), I had also visited a power station that was in the process of being shut down altogether, just 45 miles to the north. Just the mere threat of stricter air quality regulations forced their owners to decide to shut down.
The Castle Gate Power Plant, or Carbon Plant, is located between a rock and a hard place. Literally! The plant was built in an era that simply burned coal to generate electricity. Emissions controls were such that relatively little space was required. When you stand outside the Carbon Plant, you’ll wonder why its location was chosen- it was built into the base of a cliff, with a highway wrapping around two sides (with Willow creek on the other side), and only enough space on the remaining side for a dirt road to pass between it and the Price River. Somehow, amazingly, a railroad is also shoehorned into that latter strip of land. And on the other side of the Price River is a major highway connecting central and southern Utah to Salt Lake City to the north.
The Carbon Plant’s “rock” is that cliff. The “hard place” is not only the increasing concern over security because of its proximity of shared land with two highways and a railroad, but also because of new clean air rules that would require it to upgrade its emissions control technology for what are called the “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards,” or “MATS.” That MATS technology would have required an expansion in space to accommodate technology that would have reduced pollution that Hunter and Huntington plants are currently being sued by Sierra Club about- pollution that reduces visibility in national parks and causes harm to humans (among other species).
I happened to be photographing the Carbon Plant when a woman leaving the facility (a door just steps away from her vehicle across the highway) made eye contact with me. I asked her, naively, why the plant seemed to not be up and running? She took a look at my parked Chevy Volt, which has Colorado’s new “Protect Our Rivers” license plates, and said, “looking at your license plate, I don’t think I should say anything.” She said she “knows Sierra Club is in the area.” Surprisingly, she didn’t say a thing about the camera hanging from my neck.
This is an industry that has “had it” with environmentalists- or at least a company, since the Carbon Plant is also owned by PacifiCorp/Birkshire/Buffett. And this woman was one question away from venting. I asked again: why is the plant shut down? She said, “environmentalists!” With an increasingly winded voice, and an ever-brightening red face, I determined to listen more than converse, and simply let the venting flow out…
Paraphrasing the flurry of information she provided, she said that the plant could not remain open because the owners decided to shut it down, and that they only did this because of the impending MATS requirements. But she seemed livid about this point: apparently nobody even tested how the plant’s emissions could or could not meet the MATS requirements! So, basically, how dare they shut the plant down without even testing. For her, this plant was life itself. The plant employed over 700 people, she said, when it was in operation, and now, solely for the purpose of decommissioning the plant, there are only three.
That was to say nothing of the nearby mining operations that were active with vehicles navigating winding mine roads visible from the highway just a mile away down-river. Or the dozen or more construction workers monkeying around all the levels of the plant… I asked what they were doing up there. She said they were doing the asbestos abatement as part of the decommissioning. Nice.
So, because the location couldn’t fit the “scrubbers” (pollution control technology, which can in itself create a water-mixed toxic sludge of pollution that must be managed, switching dispersed air pollution for potential point-source ground and water pollution), the plant had to be shut down, and the company decided to do this on its own.
She apologized for unloading on me. She asked,”do you know what this does to a community?” The venting was over, and we moved into acceptance mode when she entered her car saying that she was retiring, “after this… I’ve had it.” And she drove off.
What does this do to a community… it’s a good question. If she and I were in a different setting, I would have liked to have discussed that topic with her. It’s the crux of the argument on both sides of the debate, amazingly enough.
On the industry’s side, which she was attempting to defend, it’s all about jobs and economy of the community. Perhaps also cultural pride going back generations (more on that below). And on “the environmentalists” side, uhh… it’s about the environment the community lives in… the air that community breathes, the water that community drinks, the safety issues that community faces from industrial activities, and the climate threats that impact that community and the entire planet. Everyone, it seems, is arguing for providing for healthy, happy families, to put it simply.
That’s why, later that night, when I was faced with a night security guard a half-mile down the highway from the Huntington Power Plant, who was told by his dispatch (I heard) to “try to hold him there,” because they were sending someone out, I had already learned that this company’s staff was on the edge- I was not sticking around to get berated again. I said, “I have what I came for… and I’m leaving.” I left the security guard in the darkening dusk in my rear-view mirror. I went a short way up the road and pulled off into a campground, decided I wanted a shot of the moon between the smoke stacks, and waited for the exact window of time it would be there (thanks to a photography app, I learned I had a relatively short wait).
The time came. I felt a bit naked without the necessary black clothes, gloves, and face camouflage one would wear during a night raid while avoiding security. But then the reality of the situation began sinking in, when I realized that PacifiCorp had made me feel like I was a criminal for making photographs while standing on public land. They don’t realize that actions like theirs cause people in the public like me to challenge them when they overreach. Like Sierra Club’s lawsuit.
I set up my camera, got the long exposure image I envisioned, and in that time, security again came slowly down the road, actually passing without stopping or harassing me this time, and continued driving. I knew what was going on… whomever they were trying to send out to speak with me before, I had just been flagged again, and they didn’t want to scare me off by harassing me. Again. I left, passing the security guard in his truck parked around the next bend.
It was getting late that night, and I hadn’t really had anything decent to eat, so I drove to the nearby City of Huntington, a small town that only had an open gas station to choose from for my dinner options. While selecting from my delectable menu, I noticed a big, white truck pull up next to my car outside. Hmm… white vehicles are a dead givaway for security and fleet vehicles.
About to enter my car and drive off, the driver of the truck who also had purchased a candy bar in the store started up a conversation with me, telling me his name and that he was a night shift supervisor. He had guessed where I would be (small town, one open store), and tracked me here. We had a real conversation. The kind of conversation I had wanted to have with the woman at the Carbon Plant, but was berated for having the wrong kind of license plate. This gentleman, however, was kind, approachable, and level-headed. And even though he didn’t live in the community in which he worked (he lives out of state, he said), I am glad locals are exposed to his demeanor and openness to have what could otherwise become a divisive conversation.
He and I conversed in that gas station parking lot for about an hour, discussing everything from jobs and economy to climate change and pollution. I told him that environmentalists don’t begrudge him one bit for conveying his point about providing for his family with a coal job, while he admitted to me that he had no understanding whatsoever of internalizing negative externalities of fossil fuel use, but was glad to have learned. We educated each other about our perspectives on coal-fired power plants, without any indication of derision, anger, stress, or any pejorative uttered.
This was someone who appeared to have had no agenda and was genuinely curious. A rare find in an industry painted broadside with propaganda to hide its warts. The same can be said of environmentalists. The devil is in the details… is it propaganda if facts are stated emphatically or with market-researched terminology for best acceptance? I have a feeling that both sides employ that strategy, but no genuine propaganda was present on this night.
This is the kind of conversation that I want to explore. If the Warren Buffetts of the fossil fuel industry world, and their board members, are at all interested in finding solutions to the environmental problems caused by fossil fuels, then it will take conversations like this man and I had in the parking lot of a City of Huntington gas station.
Perhaps I owe Sierra Club my thanks, because I don’t think I would have been able to have that conversation if my photographic activities that day hadn’t set off “internal alarms all the way up to the Vice-President,” according to this PacifiCorp employee, which sent him searching for me in the night. He had to answer to that Vice-President about what I was going to do with my photographs.
Well, if that VP happens to read this account of that day, that shift manager deserves a raise (presuming he’s not responsible for the security’s behavior) for his public relations capabilities. He even offered to take me on a tour of the plant if he could get approvals “up the chain,” I presume, from that VP. I said I’d be thrilled to tour the plant, see their emissions controls like the “baghouse” he described Warren Buffett installed before it was required in order to reduce particulate matter emissions from 10% to 1%, and others. I gave him my number and said to give me a call if he gets the approvals by morning, and that I’ll be staying nearby (in that campground situated right next to the plant).
Into obsolescence via evolution into renewables
The next morning, I woke early, went to the “Scenic Turnout,” and started taking photos. About a minute later, security showed up, again. It was the first security guard I met from the Hunter Plant the day before. This time, there was no aggressiveness, no berating for using my camera, and a lot more curiosity. I think my point about standing on public property was heard loud and clear, and she probably heard about last night’s chat in town.
She and I talked for a little while, and we tracked over several topics previously discussed the night before with the shift supervisor (though I never did receive that call inviting me to a tour by the approval of the higher-ups). Predictably at this point, all of her conversational points were about jobs and community.
She even conceded that she understands the coal industry is losing its own jobs due to technology improvements, such as machines now doing the work people used to do in the mines. Her husband, she said, works in medical technology, and she considers how many jobs those new technologies and her own husband cause to become obsolete, but that she takes solace in knowing there are still jobs in operating that technology. Sounds like an observation of automobile transportation evolving from horses and carriages with jobs shifting to newer technology. Like renewable energy jobs evolving from coal, oil, and gas jobs.
Again, I shared my perspective about issues that are important to her community, even if they don’t directly think about climate change, clean air, clean water… and safety.Just the day before, I photographed and paid my respects with a moment of silence to the coal miners memorial in Price, located between this power plant and the closed Carbon Plant. I asked her if she had done so before, reading the plaque underneath the statue of the proud-looking miner. She had not. I informed her that the plaque could have been written by an environmentalist, with how visceral it sounded while describing the horrendous conditions and varied horrible maiming and deaths that have been caused by mining, transporting, and burning coal, in these communities. But it was written, presumably, by the community it was in.
We parted on friendly terms, with her knowing that I held no grudge against her for securing coal-fired power plants.
I mean, who knows, I could have been a terrorist targeting the coal plants instead of aiming a Nikon at them. What damage could an accident cause? What harm does a fossil fueled power plant, let alone three within a short distance, invite to their community through terrorism, perceived or real? What comparative solutions to all of these problems do renewable energy sources provide to communities?
We’re all arguing for the same things, including energy jobs and the need for responsible security; we just may (currently) disagree about the power’s source of energy.
That’s the energy source challenge I look forward to working to answer.
All images shown here, and more, are available for prints and digital license downloads at Climate Photography.