IMPERIAL — Imperial County’s Lithium Valley economic plan arguably got its most prized endorsement on Thursday, May 12 when the state’s blue-ribbon Lithium Valley Commission gave it a stamp of approval in a letter that will go straight to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
The letter strongly urges Newsom to do everything he can “to help Imperial County make (its) requests a reality.” It was approved almost unanimously despite vocal objections from social justice advocates at the meeting.
The county’s latest version of its Lithium Valley Economic Opportunity Investment Plan, which was revised to omit the name Cal Poly from its funding ask for a campus in the region, seeks to gain authority over various aspects of the emerging lithium industry in the Imperial Valley, including permitting of projects and taxation.
The letter is addressed to Newsom, state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) and Assembly member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella).
“I think it is premature to lend support for this plan,” said Daniela Flores, a lead community organizer, advocate and co-founder of the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition. “I don’t think our front-line communities have had an opportunity to see their feedback reflected in this plan.”
Luis Olmedo, executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit, Comite Civico Del Valle, was the single commissioner to vote against approving the letter in its final version.
“I supported the direction the county was headed with more conversations of commitments to environmental justice and equity,” Olmedo said after the meeting. “While I agree with some points in the letter, it is too early for me to provide support ‘as is’ given there were concerns raised, and I must stay true to my role as disadvantaged community representation.
“However, we are working well with Imperial County to assure that equity and environmental justice perspectives are well established in local policies and frameworks,” Olmedo added.
The Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved its Lithium Valley economic plan in mid-February and has since sought and won support from the various cities in the region. So far, the Salton Sea Authority, Imperial County Transportation Commission and the cities of Brawley, Westmorland and Holtville have all given their support in writing.
County Supervisor Ryan Kelley, who serves as vice chair of the Lithium Valley Commission, pushed back against concerns from social justice advocates, saying that the county’s process has been inclusive.
“I can assure you from myself that I was in Niland all summer long,” Kelley told an audience attending the meeting at Imperial Valley College in Imperial. “And I continue to have conversations in Calipatria, Brawley, Niland and Bombay Beach. We are doing our level best to bring something forward and fortunately we have an opportunity to see something happen.”
County Supervisor Ray Castillo also attended the meeting and he spoke favorably of the various lithium extraction projects and the potential benefits it will bring to the Imperial Valley.
“We live in one of the poorest counties in California with the highest unemployment rate,” Castillo said. “And for once in my life, I see an opportunity that is going to lift us out of poverty.”
Representatives of the lithium industry who sit on the commission also sought clarity from Kelley on the county’s intent to tax lithium products and whether there would be more than one tax.
Jonathan Weisgall, vice president for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for Berkshire Hathaway Energy, put it bluntly: “There should be only one tax.”
Kelley, who introduced a motion to approve the letter of approval, addressed each of the various concerns raised at the meeting and said he wanted to avoid making further changes to the letter.
Kelley conceded to making only one change suggested by Steve Castaneda, a commissioner and a member of the South Bay Irrigation District Board of Directors, which was to remove the Cal Poly name from the letter so as to give Sacramento more say over which university it will support funding a new STEM campus.
Among its lists of requests from the state, Imperial County is asking for the authority to permit geothermal power plants from 49.9 megawatts to 99.9 megawatts, funding for the creation of a Lithium Valley Specific Plan and Programmatic Environmental Impact Report, funding for a Lithium Valley Development Office for 10 years, support and assist in creating an Imperial County Severance Tax or Resource Levy for minerals extracted, funding for a STEM campus, seed-funding for a lithium purity testing lab, and annual funding a new Go-Biz Tax Credit for lithium and mineral mining for five years.
The timing of the letter is crucial for the county because Newsom was set to introduce his revised state budget on Friday morning, May 13. And Newsom may be more than generous given that the state has a massive budget surplus.
Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition’s Flores, who spoke on the many socio-economic disparities that have existed in the Imperial Valley throughout its history, emphasized the need for the county to set in writing its commitment to disadvantaged residents in the Valley.
“When decisions are made behind closed-door meetings, you’re marginalizing us,” Flores said. “That’s why I was disappointed that the chair’s recommendation to include community involvement in writing was not passed.”
“We all want this to succeed. My future kids are counting for this to succeed,” she said. “As much as you have the powers, please take these specific community engagement activities and incorporate them in as much of them in writing as you can.”