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Energy Company's Shocking Plan to Spray Clouds with Toxic Chemical to Increase Rainfall -- and Make Hydropower Profits

The practice known as 'cloud seeding' has been done in California for decades. But the environmental costs are high and the regulations for corporations nonexistent.

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Biologist and Mt. Shasta resident Frances Mangels is the former District Wildlife Officer for the US Forest Service in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and a vocal opponent of cloud seeding. Mangels cites many concerns about the local ecology, including abnormal acidity of local waters, and a marked loss of aquatic insects.

"Silver-iodide is an aquatic insect poison," Mangels says. "Cloud-seeding has never been adequately shown to work; it fails ninety-five percent of the time, and it's poison. Doesn't that say it all?"

With her concerns apparently justified, Angelina Cook called the McCloud community service district and Siskiyou County's Natural Resource Specialist, and found that they knew nothing about PG&E's plan. Having worked for years as part of the effort to oust Nestle from McCloud, Cook had significant experience waging environmental campaigns; she and other residents lost no time in building similar momentum to take on PG&E.

"But what does the struggle against Nestle in McCloud have to do with the concern about cloud seeding here?" I asked her.

"This whole region is the headwaters of the Sacramento River, the aorta of California," she said. "Surface water, groundwater, and atmospheric waters are inherently linked," she said. "But while surface waters are protected under public trust, ground and atmospheric waters are totally unregulated. I find this absurd."

Another local constituency who find California's fragmented regulatory framework absurd are the region's first peoples. The Mt. Shasta area is the ancestral territory of several tribes, including the Winnemem Wintu, or Middle-water people. A small, unincorporated tribe of some 123 members, the Winnemem Wintu have been outspoken opponents of state and corporate water policies at least since several of their villages and sacred sites were relegated to oblivion by the construction of Shasta Dam decades ago.

Now, they say, most of PG&E's cloud generators are located on their land, and on private land immediately adjacent to it. Tribal representative Louisa Navejas says, "Our view of cloud-seeding is pretty simple. There is a reason why the rains come in the winter. It is meant that these rains flush the waters and heal the rivers and springs, and carry all the nutrients, the sediments and the food for all the life down the waterways to the ocean, where the ocean also needs to be fed. Silver iodide is neither a nutrient nor a purifier. It is a poison."

Many Mt. Shasta residents sympathize with this view; despite a flagging local economy and a dire need for jobs, many locals are aware that industry brings mixed blessings at best. Coca-Cola maintains a bottling plant just outside of town, and Crystal Geyser has a plant in Weed, just to the north; both plants extract unknown amounts of water, because the companies' right to free speech, as protected in both state and federal law, allows them not to disclose details about their extractive activities.

Seeing that the region would likely be under permanent threat due to its wealth of water, timber, geothermal resources and other natural wealth, Cook and her allies knew that an issue-oriented campaign would have only limited success. They sought a strategy that would not only prevent cloud seeding, but would get corporations out of their watershed once and for all. That was when they got a call from potential allies at the Community Rights Program of San Francisco-based Global Exchange and that program's key partner, the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), who were interested in taking precisely the same approach.

From a Regulatory Approach to a Rights-Based Approach

Founded in Pennsylvania in 1998, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit legal firm and advocacy group whose mission is to enable communities to challenge unsustainable economic and environmental policies set by state and federal law, and to construct legal frameworks that reject and overturn "corporate personhood."