A mundane bureaucratic hearing on the Skookumchuck Wind Energy project turned into a standing room-only affair Tuesday, as close to 100 union members packed the Lewis County Board of Commissioners’ meeting room to push for the hiring of local workers.
The long-heralded project, which is being built over the summer and expected to begin operation in December, is projected to bring 270 to 300 jobs during construction, with six or seven full-time employees running operations long-term. The 38-turbine project will cost more than $200 million and has long been a priority of Lewis County officials who have pushed to bring it to fruition.
But Tuesday, with the project poised to clear one of its final bureaucratic hurdles, scores of orange-clad union workers turned out to pressure RES-Americas, the wind farm’s backer, to hire local workers.
“(Local laborers) do work for Puget Sound Energy, they work for TransAlta, they do work for our local utilities and they’re right here in our backyard,” said Bob Guenther, president of the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Counties Labor Council. “These are local people and these will be local jobs. … I would rather trust my neighbor than someone from out of state.”
Guenther said he had spent months reaching out to Sean Bell, senior development manager with RES-Americas, but found him unwilling to have an extensive conversation on local hiring. He noted that had changed Tuesday morning, when Bell was confronted with a hearing room full of union workers. Guenther said Bell had approached him before the hearing and asked to have a sit-down conversation, a gesture he appreciated.
Asked following the hearing if RES-Americas has a plan to hire local workers, Bell would not answer.
“No comment,” he said. “You’ll have to ask our corporate office.”
An inquiry with RES-Americas’ corporate office was not returned as of press time.
The workers who turned out Tuesday were members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which has more than half a million members. Troy Andrews, president of LiUNA Local 252, said the turnout demonstrated that willing and able workers are ready to get to work if given the chance.
“Obviously, from the crowd in the room, there’s a lot of people in the local area who would love the opportunity to work on these kind of projects,” he said. “We have an opportunity for folks in your community, people in your neighborhood, to go to work, to put money back into the economy.”
Christina Riley, a Winlock resident and tribal liaison for the National Laborers Employers Cooperation Education Trust, said there’s a capable local workforce ready to take on the Skookumchuck project — many of whom currently have to go far out of their way to find work.
“It is important that we are inclusive of these people and do not turn our back to them,” she said. “It is important that these jobs, which could offer so much to our people here, that they get the opportunity to work here and they don’t have to drive to Portland or to Seattle, so they can be home with their families, so they can be part of their children’s lives. It is a shame that it is not inclusive.”
Billy Wallace, political and legislative director of the Washington and Northern Idaho District Council of Laborers, said RES-Americas has a poor track record of hiring local workers. He urged Hearing Examiner Mark Scheibmeir to delay RES-Americas’ permit until they offered a resolution to local labor.
“Any community would love to have a project of this magnitude coming in,” he said. “We’ve been trying to talk to (RES-Americas), trying to work with them. They talk a good game about coming in and using local hires. … We would like you to delay this permit process until they can get this worked out with them.”
Ultimately, the union presence had no bearing on the hearing itself, a routine matter to ensure the project complied with Lewis County’s Shoreline Master Program. Most of the two-hour affair was spent sifting through paperwork relating to lines crossing a pair of streams, with only a few minutes for public comment from the union members. Scheibmeir said he appreciated their input, but was only allowed to consider shoreline-related issues and thus had no recourse but to approve the permit.
“I am entirely supportive of this audience and these issues,” he said. “I’m entirely without legal authority to address them in my decision-making. … It’s not anything I can do anything about other than express that support.”
Guenther lamented that his union allies had not showed up in force until this late in the process, though he had urged the groups to get involved in earlier phases of permitting, when it might have had a greater impact. Still, he credited the workers who showed up Tuesday and said they’d sent a strong message. Bell’s offer to meet up and talk, he said, is a sign of the pressure applied by the unions.
“The fear is that something like this (protest) would shut the project down,” he said. “I don’t want any part of that. We want to get this project moving, but we want to make sure that we get as many local people employed as we can. … If we take out-of-state workers who come in and do that work, that money leaves. If we do the work with local contractors, you keep that money in our community. It’s not about damning the county commissioners, it’s not about damning the community, it’s about trying to make sure that we get a place at the table for some of these workers.”
County commissioners have worked extensively with RES-Americas on the permitting process, and are eager to see the project move forward. Commissioner Edna Fund, who was at a separate meeting during the hearing, said she hoped the company would hire local workers after the extensive efforts of local officials to move the project forward.
“I certainly like Lewis County people to get a piece of the action when we have something new coming in,” she said.