Mark Zuckerberg Is Despoiling a Tiny Coastal Village and Oregon’s Natural Treasures. The State Invited Him.

Facebook snuck onto the Oregon Coast, bullied neighbors, abused the state’s iconic coastline, and covered up its sins, all in the service of expanding its wildly profitable quasi-monopoly on social media.

VIEW LOT: Facebook built a security fence around its drill site, with extra high bracing to hold noise curtains. (Alex Wittwer)

Tierra del Mar, two hours from Portland, is a funny kind of beach town. You can't buy a cup of coffee, a beer or even a kid's bucket and shovel there.

There are no stoplights, no cops and no city government.

That's the way Marie Cook and the unincorporated Tillamook County village's 220 other homeowners like it.

Cook and her late husband bought their house in Tierra del Mar in 1971.
Sandwiched between the soaring cliffs of Cape Lookout to the north and the blocky basalt monolith of Haystack Rock rising 327 feet above sea level to the south, Tierra del Mar—a collection of run-down shacks, trailers and elegant beach homes—is cut off from the world, on one of the state's longest stretches of beach not directly adjacent to Highway 101.

A no-nonsense retired nurse with a nimbus of white hair, Cook says Tierra del Mar has changed little in 50 years—until she discovered by chance in late 2018 that Facebook was going to be her new neighbor.

As in directly next door to her tidy Cape Cod-style beachfront home.

Looking out the back window of her home one day, Clark spied strange men tromping between her deck and the Pacific dunes.

"These surveyors were walking in my yard. I said, 'What are you doing here?'" Cook recalls. "They said they were working on a cable project. I didn't know what they were talking about."

They were laying the groundwork for a connection between Asia and Facebook's vast server farms in Hillsboro and Prineville.

Lee King, a long-time resident and owner of the only shop in Tierra del Mar—a store that sells Oregon sunstones. King owns several sunstone mines in Oregon. He shop space with a bodega cat named “Mama Cat.” (Alex Wittwer)

Cook and her neighbors have since become experts on the fiber-optic cable that crosses the Pacific seabed like high-tech Silly String.

In the past two years, over the opposition of Tierra del Mar residents, a Facebook subsidiary, Edge Cable Holdings, bought an oceanfront lot from former NFL and Oregon Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington and have converted the lot into a vibrating, cacophonous industrial site, clouded with diesel fumes, the roar of a drilling rig and the rumble of heavy trucks. A forbidding security fence topped with noise curtains replaced the scrub pine and thick vegetation on the lot.

"It was just awful," Cook says.

After interviews with residents and public officials and a review of a vast sheaf of public records, a picture emerges of a huge and powerful company that snuck onto the Oregon Coast, bullied neighbors, abused the state's iconic coastline, and covered up its sins, all in the service of expanding its wildly profitable quasi-monopoly on social media.

"There are 365 miles of coastline in Oregon," Cook says. "And yet they come here and put this thing that has no benefit for our community right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It's unethical."

UNHAPPY NEIGHBOR: Marie Cook (below) now looks at Facebook’s fence, which is adjacent to her backyard. (Alex Wittwer)

Cameron La Follette, director of the Oregon Coast Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, says it's anything but a NIMBY dispute. She says what's happening in Tierra del Mar affects every inch of Oregon's coastline and beyond. In her view, the industrialization of Oregon's ocean is proceeding without much thought about what could go wrong.

And it's a betrayal of the legacy of former Gov. Tom McCall, who safeguarded Oregon's beaches as a public trust (see "Stinking Smokestacks," below). Now the state is selling its coast—cheaply.

"In Oregon, we've been very lax in what we allow corporations to do and have not put enough emphasis on the public interest," La Follette says. "The result of that gap is, we have an ugly mess on our hands."

The specific mess in Tierra del Mar, as first reported last week by the Tillamook Headlight-Herald: 1,110 feet of drilling pipe, a broken drill bit, and 6,500 gallons of drilling fluid that Facebook's contractor abandoned under the seabed—and about which it only belatedly told state officials.

The back porch of Mary Cook’s shared home in Tierra del Mar. A large fence lies to the north of the property, where Facebook held their drilling operations.

Facebook is as big as Tierra del Mar is small. At its current share price of about $260, Facebook is worth $750 billion, making it the nation's fifth-largest company. CEO Mark Zuckerberg owns shares worth nearly $100 billion, thanks to his ability to monetize the more than 2.5 billion people who use Facebook each month.

In Tierra del Mar, the locals don't even have cellphone service. They're not interested in terabytes. They just want to be left alone. But for the past two years, they and their attorneys have battled Facebook in a series of forums as the company sought permits at the local, state and federal level.

In October 2018, the Facebook subsidiary Edge purchased the vacant lot next to Cook's from Harrington for $495,000. (He bought the lot in 2008 for $600,000.)

The plan was to lay 5,000 miles of cable between Oregon and Japan and to use Harrington's lot as a staging ground. The company would excavate an underground vault on the property and drill under the beach and ocean floor to a point about a half-mile offshore. There, the cable would come up through a hole in the seafloor and connect to the trans-Pacific cable.

Undersea cables form the spinal cord of the internet. The slender fiber-optic strands blast terabytes of data from continent to continent. Facebook told regulators in permit applications it plans to build "an ultra-high-speed fiber-optic cable system" to meet the increasing demand for internet services worldwide.
At least seven other trans-Pacific cables come ashore in Oregon but none at a location comparable to Tierra del Mar, so previous installations have not generated similar opposition.

Facebook made one friend when it came to town: the Oregon Fishermen's Cable Committee, which helped the tech giant chart a path that would avoid snags with nets that commercial fishing boats drag across the ocean bottom. OFCC members also do "patrol duty" when companies lay cable in Oregon waters. The work can be lucrative—up to $5,000 a day for large boats—and earned the Oregon Fishermen's Cable Committee nearly $154,000 in 2017.

But residents of Tierra del Mar viewed Facebook as an occupying army. "If they had come and asked for a meeting with the community, maybe it wouldn't have turned into such a negative situation," Cook says.

Facebook declined to answer specific questions for this story, instead responding with general statements.

"Over the last 12 months, through multiple town hall meetings and public communications, Facebook has engaged with the Tierra del Mar community and leadership to ensure that all of the questions concerning noise, environmental impact and road closures have been addressed," a company spokeswoman said.

POP-UP ADS: Anti-Facebook signs along Sandlake Road express Tierra del Mar’s feelings.(Alex Wittwer)

Most people in Tierra del Mar learned of Facebook's arrival when they received public notices in late 2018 and early 2019 that the company's subsidiary was filing for a batch of local, state and federal permits on Harrington's lot.

They were flummoxed: How could Facebook put an industrial facility in a sleepy neighborhood that was zoned entirely residential?

Two of those neighbors, Lynnae and Ed Ruttledge, had spent decades immersed in the process and procedures of government.

Facebook's arrival in Tierra del Mar, where the Ruttledges have owned a home since 1992, interrupted a peaceful retirement. But soon, fighting Facebook would become nearly a full-time job for them both.

Spritelike at 5-foot-1, Lynnae Ruttledge, a former high-ranking official in vocational rehab in Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C., is a tenacious researcher. Her husband, 74, negotiated labor contracts for Portland-area governments. In retirement, Ed Ruttledge has used his skills as a photographer and drone pilot to bring attention to the battle in Tierra del Mar.

"I've been doing public policy my entire career," Lynne Ruttledge says. "I requested their permit applications and read them. What they said they were going to do was so contrary to what a residential community is, I became very concerned."

Lyannae and Ed Ruttlegde pose for a photo on their patio in Tierra del Mar on August 15, 2020. (Alex Wittwer)

To move forward, Facebook needed numerous permits—but two were key. The first permit would have to come from the State Land Board, whose only members are Gov. Kate Brown, State Treasurer Tobias Read, and Secretary of State Bev Clarno.

The company needed the state's permission to drill under the seabed and punch a hole in the seafloor where the cable could exit.

In a February 2019 meeting with state officials, Tierra del Mar residents expressed their objections to the project.

But nothing in Oregon law specifically prohibited what Facebook wanted to do; the company just had to demonstrate it could conduct its drilling safely and without harm to the environment.

Moreover, Gov. Brown had explicitly pitched her state as a landing ground for marine cables in a 2016 letter to the Pacific Telecommunications Conference.

"As chair of the State Land Board, which approves easements for cable landings on the Oregon coast, I can assure you that we will welcome and give full and timely consideration to all landing requests," Brown wrote.

That business-friendly attitude prevailed when it came time to vote.
At the June 2019 land board meeting, Read said the board should grant Facebook's permit, provided it got all other permits as well.
Read acknowledged neighbors' concerns and urged Facebook to be a good corporate citizen.

"I'm comfortable making the motion," Read said. "Going forward, I'm hopeful Facebook and Edge will take responsibilities to communicate with neighbors seriously."

Brown seconded his motion. Neither mentioned they'd received substantial campaign contributions from Facebook and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg: Read had received $38,900 since 2008, and Brown got $12,500 since 2016.

Although State Land Board members are not required to disclose such information, La Follette of the Coastal Alliance wishes thay had. "They should absolutely have disclosed those contributions," she says. "The very least the public should expect is transparency."

FACEBOOK’S LONG SHADOW: The lot thesocial media giant bought is centrally located and looms large in Tierra del Mar. (Alex Wittwer)

Read's spokeswoman Amy Bates says the contributions had no effect on his vote. In fact, she says, he wanted to delay approval for more consultation with neighbors. "Unfortunately, there was little appetite from others to slow the permitting process down," Bates says.

Brown's spokesman Charles Boyle says any notions Facebook's contributions influenced Brown's vote is "absurd."

"Gov. Brown has a long track record of standing up for the environment, from climate policy to forest management to protection of Oregon's coast," Boyle says.
Facebook is no stranger to Oregon. The company opened its first data center in the state in 2011 near Prineville. It now has nine data centers there, an investment totaling about $2 billion.

That's in part because, in addition to cheap electricity, Oregon offers the company and its competitors massive tax breaks, which the trade website Data Center Frontier has reported are the second-most generous in the country.

The Tierra del Mar cable project is a direct result of Facebook having built all that infrastructure in Oregon—it will connect all those servers to Asia.
Records show Facebook has spent $294,000 lobbying public officials in Oregon since 2016, more than Apple or Microsoft but less than Amazon.

Clarno, the secretary of state, who lives near Facebook's Central Oregon server farms, voted last on the company's state permit.

"I hope it's of some comfort that Facebook in Central Oregon has been a wonderful partner in Prineville," she said before casting her "yes" vote. "They provided local schools equipment and made sure we are happy."

The residents of Tierra del Mar were not so easily swayed.

View of the interior lot owned by Facebook. The property was leveled and cleared of all vegetation to support the drilling equipment.

After the land board approval, Facebook sought to pacify its critics before meeting them in the most crucial forum, the Tillamook County Commission, in late 2019.

State Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis), whose district includes Tierra del Mar, was initially supportive of Facebook's efforts. He tried to broker a truce and pointed out to Tierra del Mar residents they had leverage.

"I got Facebook to come down and meet with the neighbors," Gomberg recalls. "I'd said, 'You are in a great place to ask for things: What do you want? Paved roads? A park? What?'"

In the fall of 2019, Facebook's representatives made their case to residents at two meetings.

It didn't go well. At one of the meetings, Ed Ruttledge recalls, Facebook representatives brought in cake from a popular Pacific City bakery, Grateful Bread.

"They tried to serve us cake," Ruttledge recalls, "but nobody would take the cake."

Cows along Mccormick loop in Tillamook, OR on August 15, 2020. (Alex Wittwer)

Marie Cook, the Ruttledges, and other neighbors lawyered up.
Facebook, through its Portland attorney, Phil Grillo of Davis Wright Tremaine, argued the Facebook subsidiary was in effect a utility, just like a provider of water or electricity. Therefore, the project should be permitted.

Claiming utility status was an interesting position to take for a company that has battled calls for regulation in Washington, D.C., and in Europe for years.
Regulated utilities are subject to heavy oversight—and their profits are capped at a small fraction of the profit margins Facebook earns.

In 2018, shortly before Facebook began work in Oregon, Zuckerberg defined his company in congressional testimony. "I consider us to be a technology company," he said. "The primary thing we do is have engineers that write code and build services for other people."

Duke University professor Philip Napoli, who has written extensively about Facebook, says that given the company's aversion to regulation, he's surprised it would claim to be a utility in Oregon.

"It sets a precedent and opens the prospect of more and different regulations than I think Facebook would want to be subject to," Napoli says.
In January of this year, Tillamook County's board of commissioners, by a 2-1 vote, determined that Facebook, in this instance, qualified as a public utility and therefore deserved approval.

Doug Olson, a longtime Tillamook County business leader and member of the Tillamook People's Utility District board, says he's not convinced.
"I do not see that they would qualify as a public utility," Olson says. "In Oregon, virtually every utility enjoys a monopoly and either answers to the Public Utility Commission or an elected board—Facebook doesn't do any of that."

In February, Facebook made what its attorney called a "peace proposal." Facebook would pay $15,000 each to four adjacent landowners, and $15,000 to the Tierra del Mar Community Association—but only if nobody appealed the county's decision.

The opponents said no. And Facebook moved ahead.

Rabbits are a common sighting along the Oregon Coast, having been introduced in the 1980s and rapidly increasing in population. Over recent years, natural predators and migration has dwindled their numbers in Pacific City, as well as other coastal towns in Oregon. (Alex Wittwer)

On March 9, after erecting security fences and noise barriers, the company's contractor started drilling. The hole would first go down and then horizontally under the beach and out under the seafloor.

As the drill bit progressed, it displaced sand, dirt and rock that was forced back out of the pipe on land and hauled away. (Facebook expected to displace 77,000 cubic yards of material, enough to fill 23 Olympic-sized swimming pools.)

Vibration from the drilling rig broke the water main to Marie Cook's house—Facebook had it repaired—and disturbed other neighbors.

"You could hear it and you could feel it," says Candace Churchley, who lives a block away from the drilling site. "And the diesel fumes were intense."

Then, disaster.

On April 28, two days before the project's state permit was to expire for the year, the drill bit was biting through the earth about 500 feet offshore when it smashed into rock, breaking the drill bit and snapping the pipe.

The mishap left drilling machinery, 1,110 feet of broken pipe, and 6,500 gallons of drilling fluid—a mixture of water, chemicals and bentonite, a lubricating mineral—40 to 50 feet under the seabed.

Churchley, 72, who bought her house in Tierra del Mar in 1982, and moved to the town full time in 2003, says she walks the beach with her husband three hours every day.

A volunteer at the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, Churchley worries the debris and drilling fluid might emerge from the seafloor in an earthquake and about the long-term effects of drilling on the seafloor. "I don't think man has yet created anything that won't decompose in saltwater," she says.

The company notified the county of the drilling accident May 5 but did not inform state authorities it had left drilling equipment under the sea until June 17.
Residents in Tierra del Mar are livid. "Facebook could care less what happens here," Churchley says.

But like many of her neighbors, Churchley is most upset with state and local officials.

"They haven't really listened to the residents or considered the environmental impact of what they've allowed," Churchley says. "I thought they were there to help us and protect us. But that's not true."

On Aug. 13, the Department of State Lands told Facebook it would have to pay damages for leaving the drilling materials under the sea and that it had six months to come up with a plan to remedy the situation.

La Follette isn't impressed. "Part of the problem in this case is, Oregon doesn't have any standards at the state or local level for undersea cables," she says. "There's been absolutely zero public debate over whether landing cables is a good thing or not. Most of these projects don't benefit Oregonians."

View of Tierra del Mar from the south. (Alex Wittwer)

She thinks companies are increasingly attracted to Oregon because it's cheaper and easier to do business here than in neighboring coastal states.

Immediately after rejecting Facebook's peace offering, opponents filed an appeal with the Land Use Board of Appeals, an agency that provides a statewide forum for local land use disputes and has the authority to overrule decisions made locally.

LUBA has twice postponed a decision whether the Tillamook County Commission should have allowed Facebook to engage in industrial activity in a residential zone. It says it hopes to issue a ruling Aug. 21.

Gomberg, the state representative, vows to bring the issue to Salem in 2021. Once a supporter of the Tierra del Mar project, he's changed his view. "Facebook has proven to be a poor neighbor," he says. "And more broadly, a poor citizen."

Along Tierra del Mar's main drag, Sandlake Road, signs sway gently in the coastal breeze. They say, "Keep Facebook Off Our Beach."

Marie Cook doesn't regret challenging the corporate colossus. And although she stays in touch with her grandchildren via Facebook, she's probably going to stop using it.

"To fight Facebook is pretty silly considering how big they are, but it seemed like the right thing to do," Cook says. "They left all this garbage out under the ocean."

Sunset reflects off the houses. In the distance, Cape Lookout. (Alex Wittwer)

Stinking Smokestacks

Oregon's iconic 1967 Beach Bill aimed to prevent the private commercial exploitation of the state's coastline.

The bill is a legacy of Gov. Tom McCall, who spearheaded the legislation guaranteeing Oregonians a right unique on the West Coast—"free and uninterrupted use of the beaches."

But in recent decades, Cameron La Follette says, Oregon leaders have lost sight of McCall's vision.

The economic colonization of Oregon has seen high-tech server farms hook up tp the Columbia River's cheap hydropower, Wall Street-backed timber management firms mow down our forests like cornfields, oil trains roll unregulated along our rails, and fossil fuel companies vie to string pipelines to our deep-water harbors.

La Follette and others blame Gov. Kate Brown and other officials for making it easy for companies that want to plunder Oregon's natural resources.

"Do we want to sell out to every industry that comes to the coast?" La Follette asks.

A shed full of beach supplies on Austin Avenue in Tierra del Mar. (Alex Wittwer)

Brown's spokesman, Charles Boyle, disputes the notion that Oregon goes too easy on industry generally or Facebook specifically.

"The actions of Facebook and its subsidiaries in this case are unacceptable, and we expect state agencies will hold them accountable to the fullest extent allowed by Oregon law," Boyle says. "Oregon's coasts and seafloor are not Mark Zuckerberg's dumping ground."

Boyle adds Brown is considering a review of cable siting policies.

State Treasurer Tobias Read says that must happen. "[He] believes that our permitting system is flawed and in need of reform to reflect the evolving nature of infrastructure projects like Facebook's," says his spokeswoman Amy Myers.

"It's on us to prevent it from happening again."

One means of doing that: Make doing business on the Oregon Coast more expensive.

Oregon law prohibits the Department of State Lands from charging companies for permits. That means, once it obtained state approval, Facebook could have drilled out under the state's beach and punched a hole in the bottom of the ocean for free.

Recognizing that the policy made no sense, Facebook negotiated a payment of $300,000 for 20 years of protection from any future law change. The fee Tillamook County charged Facebook for its permit didn't add much more expense—about $1,700.

In California, the business climate is less friendly. Facebook acknowledged that in one permit application, saying, "permitting in Northern California would also be complicated due to the marine sanctuary off the northern California Coast." Permitting costs in Hermosa Beach, where the main trunk of the Jupiter cable will land, are far higher than in Oregon.

Long after he signed the Beach Bill, McCall cautioned Oregon about selling itself too cheaply.

"Oregon is demure and lovely, and it ought to play a little hard to get," McCall said in 1982. "And I think you'll be just as sick as I am if you find it is nothing but a hungry hussy, throwing herself at every stinking smokestack that's offered."
McCall's Beach Bill built on the work of an earlier Oregon governor, Oswald West.

Mary Voboril, who bought property four doors from the drilling site in 1989, says both men would be dismayed to see what has happened in Tierra del Mar.

"How does such cavalier, even arrogant disregard for public property square with the legacy of Tom McCall and Os West?" Voboril asks. "It mocks their efforts, which were pretty hard-won."

Remnants of a campfire as stars fill up the night sky over Tierra del Mar. (Alex Wittwer)

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