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A closeup of the sign touting the Red Hill Bay project can be seen along Garst Road near Red Hill Bay on the southern end of the Salton Sea on Sunday, Jan. 31. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Tensions Rise Over Red Hill Bay in Part III of Hearing

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Tensions grew in a series of back-and-forth exchanges between attorneys for the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District and the Imperial Irrigation District regarding the Red Hill Bay project site during a third day of hearings over an air-pollution violation order against the district.

A hearing board met Friday, Feb. 19, for the third part of its hearing to discuss a petition from Air Pollution Control Officer Matt Dessert for an order for abatement against the district for violations of air district rules and regulations. An order for abatement is an enforcement action that requires an owner or operator who is out of compliance to take specific action to get back into compliance with air district rules.

Discussions have centered around exposed Salton Sea lakebed, or playa, at the Red Hill Bay project at the southern end of the sea. The Air Pollution Control District contends the IID has been an irresponsible landowner of the Red Hill site, while IID officials say the Air Pollution Control District was too quick to push forward with notices of violation.

Only two witnesses were interviewed Friday during the seven-hour hearing, both from the IID side, but objections back and forth between attorneys caused tensions to rise.

“Don’t you base your contention on the fact that there are these two little natural wetlands areas on the Red Hill Bay property?” asked attorney Aileen Tabor to witness Jessica Humes, senior environmental project manager at IID.

“Yes, there are two wetland areas on the property that have established vegetation,” Humes replied. “What you failed to realize, though, is those two …”

“I’m not asking for you to give me a narrative,” Tabor cut in. “I just need you to answer the questions I have. Very respectfully, I want to get through this.”

“Stop. Let’s stop right there,” IID attorney Clif McFarland said. “Ms. Humes was answering your question. She was in mid-sentence and you cut her off.”

“I am permitted to do that because it was nonresponsive to my question, which was a yes or no question,” Tabor said. “And if you let me finish, I have this one last question that I’m trying to get an answer and then I’ll be done.”

“I would ask that when a witness is answering your question to let her complete her answer,” McFarland said. “It is common courtesy.”

“I’m not going to, if it is not responsive,” Tabor countered. 

“It’s not responsive to your question because you don’t like the answer,” Humes said. 

“Let’s rephrase the question,” hearing board chairperson Sergio Cabanas said.

“So, you have stated that you believe vegetation can grow on the Red Hill Bay project area. Is that true?” Tabor asked.

“Yes,” Humes replied.

“And you have based that on the fact that there are these two little natural wetlands area that are on the property,” Tabor continued. “Isn’t that true?”

“I’m going to object that it misstates her testimony,” McFarland said. “Her testimony is that there are 70 acres of vegetation that comprises 14 or 15 percent of the entire project area. You’re insisting on calling it little or very tiny, or words to that extent, it’s 15 percent of the project area. Let’s ask nonargumentative questions.” 

“It wasn’t argumentative, and if you would let her, you actually interrupted the witness in mid-answer,” Tabor said. “So, I’m going to ask you not to do that please. …

“Mr. Humes, you base your belief that there would be no problem growing vegetation on the Red Hill Bay project area because there are these two small natural wetland areas that are on the property,” she said. “Isn’t that true?”

“No. I’m saying if you apply water to the area, you can get vegetation to grow,” Humes replied. 

“So, you really don’t have any basis for making that statement, isn’t that true?” Tabor asked.

“No, that’s not true. There’s two wetlands there because water is applied. They’re drainage water onto the site that has established that vegetation,” Humes said. “If you apply water to the playa and do any sort of seeding, you will get vegetation to grow.”

Not only did the attorneys argue, but board members called out a recent article from another local publication that erroneously stated the hearing board members are Air Pollution Control District employees, which they are not, hearing chair Cabanas said. 

“Our job is to hear the presentation from both sides and make a fair, fair decision,” he said.

Fellow board member Bob Fischer also took offense to the article, but more with the content. In the article, IID Director JB Hamby said he is sure IID will lose the case, and the issue will go to a higher court to be heard. Hamby reportedly said, “It will go to an actual court, not a kangaroo court.”

A kangaroo court is defined as a court that ignores recognized standards of law or justice and often carries little or no official standings in the territory within which it resides. A kangaroo court may ignore due process and come to a predetermined conclusion.

“Regarding that article in the paper, I would like to point out the IID is not doing itself any favors by slandering the board members, and calling us a kangaroo court,” Fischer said at the beginning of the hearing.

The hearing board continued the hearing to a later date that has not yet been announced. This was the third continuance for this issue.