Wind energy development in Tama Co. hits turbulence
Multiple lawsuits embroil Salt Creek developers
Further wind development in Tama County appears to have encountered some headwinds in recent weeks as two different lawsuits involving the wind energy company Salt Creek Wind LLC and its consultants Robert and Eric Bergstrom play out in court.
Salt Creek Wind LLC and Conifer Power Co. have been actively developing the current iteration of the Salt Creek Wind project in central Tama County since at least 2019.
According to court documents filed in Tama County in late April of this year, over the course of the last three years, Salt Creek Wind LLC has contracted with over 220 “local landowners” to obtain voluntary contracts, leases, and easements as it relates to the wind energy project.
Previous reporting by Tama-Grundy Publishing describes the Salt Creek Wind project as occupying an area mostly between Highway 96/63 and County Road E29, east and west of Van Wall Equipment and Mid Iowa Coop – stretching to almost the eastern border of Garwin, to the southeastern border of Gladbrook, and the southwestern border of Traer.
On Dec. 9, 2020, the Tama County Board of Adjustment approved 60 conditional use permits for the project within its 25,000 acre footprint.
But since that time, not a single Salt Creek Wind turbine has been erected in Tama County – what has risen, however, is controversy over wind development leading to the founding of the local coalition Tama County Against Turbines (TCAT).
Beginning in March of last year, members of TCAT have been attending board of supervisors meetings every week in opposition to both Apex Clean Energy’s Winding Stair Wind project in the north and east of the county – an unrelated commercial wind energy project which seems to have also stalled – as well as the Salt Creek Wind project.
Now, two different lawsuits have been filed in Tama County District Court in less than a week’s time that could affect further development by Salt Creek Wind LLC.
Salt Creek Wind LLC v. TCAT
On April 20, Salt Creek Wind LLC filed suit against Tama County Against Turbines, LLC as well as six of its “members” including Jon Winkelpleck, Kathy Harkema, Richard Arp, Heather Knebel, Chris Behrens, and Janet Wilson. All but Harkema – who resides in Poweshiek County – live in Tama County.
According to the petition, the first phase of the Salt Creek Wind project is valued at approximately $300 million and as of June 13, 2022, has been “fully permitted and ready to begin construction” following the issuance of 56 Zoning Certificates by the Tama County Zoning Administrator.
“Salt Creek received very few public concerns about its Project throughout the entire permitting process … until TCAT suddenly appeared,” the petition against TCAT alleges.
“Defendants … have chastised and bullied the Supervisors demanding they issue a moratorium on wind energy projects, including Salt Creek’s Project, even though Supervisors were advised by their legal counsel not to take such action,” the petition further states.
The lawsuit levels three counts against TCAT including interference with contractual relations, defamation — libel/slander, and civil conspiracy.
As part of the first count, Salt Creek Wind LLC states that TCAT and its members have been “filing frivolous lawsuits and other actions … in an attempt to frustrate the purpose of the contracts between Salt Creek and the local landowners.”
The defendants’ actions have “caused Salt Creek damages, specifically in a several month time delay to the Project and therefore increased costs in the Project,” the petition alleges.
Under the second count of defamation, Salt Creek Wind LLC alleges that some statements made during county meetings by members of TCAT, during TCAT’s own meetings, and on the public Facebook page operated by TCAT have been false and made knowingly, thereby harming Salt Creek’s reputation.
The petition requests Salt Creek Wind LLC be fully compensated for its damages, including punitive damages, court costs, and “other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper.”
Salt Creek Wind LLC is represented by attorneys David J. Hellstern and Amanda A. James of West Des Moines.
In response, TCAT’s counsel filed a 60-page answer with 10 separate counterclaims, the chief of which alleges that the current Salt Creek Wind LLC easements were possibly obtained under false pretenses.
A press release dated May 12 from TCAT’s counsel regarding its counterclaims states a development company calling itself Salt Creek Wind, Iowa – which dissolved in 2016 – first appeared in Tama County more than a decade ago, signing up easements beginning in 2011.
But those easements all expired by 2019, the press release further states, and Robert Bergstrom, along with two other named individuals, began to “troll” Tama County for easements, “applying for and receiving permits without revealing that the 2019 ‘Salt Creek Wind’ is not the same ‘Salt Creek Wind’ that Tama County residents first came to know in 2011.”
According to the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, a business entity calling itself Salt Creek Wind, LLC filed paperwork in Iowa on Jan. 9, 2009, but it has since become inactive.
An active business entity called Salt Creek Wind LLC with Amanda James of West Des Moines listed as the registering agent filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office on June 17, 2020.
Amanda A. James of West Des Moines is listed as one of Salt Creek Wind LLC’s attorneys in the petition against TCAT.
As if the intrigue wasn’t enough, a second lawsuit was filed in Tama County five days after the petition against TCAT was recorded – this time, however, Salt Creek Wind LLC was taking on a new role, defendant.
Southern Natural Resources v. Salt Creek Wind LLC
On April 25, another lawsuit involving wind development in Tama County was filed in District Court. The plaintiff this time around is Southern Natural Resources, LLC (SNR) of Delaware, and the defendants are Conifer Power Company, LLC of Florida, Salt Creek Wind, LLC, Betchel Development Company, Inc., and MidAmerican Energy Company.
Defendants Conifer and Salt Creek Wind are currently developing a commercial wind project in Tama County, while Betchel – according to previous Tama-Grundy Publishing reporting – is a wind turbine builder.
In its petition, SNR alleges an Asset Purchase Agreement (APA) was made between itself, Nations Energy Solutions, Inc. (NES), and Bergstrom Renewables, LLC on December 11, 2013, to develop various wind farm projects including the Salt Creek project. (NES was established and incorporated as Salt Creek Wind for the purpose of developing the project.)
On Aug. 1, 2014, SNR entered into a consulting agreement with Bergstrom and its principles, Eric and Robert Bergstrom, under which SNR paid them for assistance in developing wind farms, including Salt Creek, with Bergstrom agreeing that any technical data related to the SNR projects would belong to SNR, per the petition.
Robert and Eric Bergstrom agreed, SNR’s petition states, to be bound to certain terms including non-competition and confidentiality agreements.
In the 11-page petition, SNR alleges that in early April 2019, Bechtel expressed an interest in posting the security and funding the development of the Salt Creek wind farm project, after which NES created Salt Creek Wind LLC – the same company now suing TCAT.
On May 7, 2019, under the guise of acting as SNR’s consultant, Bergstrom Renewables requested and obtained SNR’s proprietary and trade secret information for the Salt Creek wind farm project including “critical wind data and environmental data.”
At some point during the next several months, Betchel learned of the existing APA between SNR, NES, and Bergstrom, the petition alleges.
In June of 2019, Robert Bergstrom – president of NES and founder of Bergstrom Renewables – created Confier Power in order to “effectively run end-around Bergstrom’s obligations under the APA and Consulting Agreement,” the petition states, “for the purposes of developing the Salt Creek wind farm project” for Salt Creek Wind LLC.
In August of 2020, recognizing “that these joint development activities violated the express terms of the APA,” NES attempted to terminate the APA “and backdated that termination to March 2018” – a move which SNR subsequently rejected, according to court documents.
Through its petition, SNR is accusing Bergstrom/Conifer and NES of breaching the APA by developing projects in violation of SNR’s exclusive development rights. SNR states it has invested between $5 and $6 million in Salt Creek.
The petition further states that Robert and Eric Bergstrom, NES, and Conifer provided SNR’s proprietary and trade secret information to MidAmerican in 2022 as the Salt Creek Wind project’s “prospective commercial partner.”
SNR alleges the defendants’ misappropriated trade secret information, unjustly enriched themselves, and interfered with contracts.
In its petition, SNR – represented by attorney Ann E. Pille of Chicago – is demanding a jury trial and asks to be awarded general and special damages in an amount to be determined by a jury; exemplary and punitive damages; an award of unjust enrichment; interest; attorney’s fees and costs; and any other relief deemed reasonable.
SNR further asks for both a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the defendants from using SNR’s proprietary and trade secret information.
Both Robert and Eric Bergstrom were contacted by Tama-Grundy Publishing by email for comment regarding SNR’s lawsuit and its allegations – as of publication, neither had responded.
Currently, Tama County hosts 20 operating commercial wind turbines near Gladbrook as part of MidAmerican Energy’s Vienna Wind Farm, while Traer Municipal Utilities operates a small wind turbine outside of Traer.
TCAT’s signs proclaiming “SAY NO” continue to dot both the rural ditches and small town yards throughout the county.