Tribes Sue Over Desert Solar Sites

by Bill Harper, January 20, 2011

Demonstration on I-10 in Riverside County

On January 7, a confederation of native American groups sued the federal government over the location of six planned Solar sites. According to court documents, the projects include the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Project (Bright Energy), the Blythe Solar Power Project (Chevron Energy Solutions and Solar Millenium, LLC), the Imperial Valley Solar Project (Tessera/NTR), Chevron Energy Solutions Lucerne Valley Solar Project, Calico Solar Project (Tessera/NTR), and the Genesis Project (Florida Power and Light subsidiary NextEra™).

La Cuna founder Alfredo Figueroa states that cumulatively, the projects would grade and develop 23,842 acres of essentially pristine desert lands, designated as class “L” under the California Desert Conservation Area Plan. Class L (Limited Use) lands protect “natural, scenic, ecological, and cultural resource values.” The lands are “managed to provide for generally lower-intensity, carefully controlled multiple use of resources, while ensuring that sensitive values are not significantly diminished.” The complaint indicates that each of the projects was permitted with an “amendment” to the CDCA according to the Bureau of Land Management

According to Patricia Pinon, Chairperson of La Cuna's Advisory Committee, the group was joined by CARE, Californians for Renewable Energy, and 6 individual Native American plaintiffs. Pinon indicates La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Site Protection Circle has standing to sue by virtue of meeting the definition of “Indian Tribe,” according to Section 106 of the National Register of Historic Places, and by virtue of an existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the BLM.

The potential impacts are both environmental and cultural. Jim Andre, Ph.D. University of California Riverside botanist, and Director of the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Institute states, “Rather than be smart from the start by utilizing ecologically degraded sites first, a reckless and scientifically unmerited decision has been made to instead race into our most pristine desert and obliterate some of the most botanically significant lands in California.”

The Sierra Club belatedly has brought suit over the Calico site. This was one of the worst locations and the sketchiest companies. That project probably would have died on it's own.

January 4, 2011 — On December 30, 2010 the Sierra Club filed a petition with the California Supreme Court over violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and Warren Alquist Act over the Calico Solar Project. Tessera Solar had developed the project as a Stirling dish/engine solar thermal power plant, yet due to financial problems undoubtedly stemming from the unreliability of the technology, the parent company NTR of Ireland sold the project rights to K Road, an energy development start-up company that planned to turn most of the project into photovoltaic panels, with a smaller phase remaining as Stirling dishes. The project is still known as Calico Solar Project, and may have to restart both Bureau of Land Management environmental review, and California Energy Commission review (the CEC has responsibility for upholding CEQA).

The Warren Alquist Act requires the California Energy Commission to site thermal power plants in a way that will not violate any laws, and that will ensure plants do not cause “significant, unmitigable, adverse environmental impacts.” CEQA ensures long-term protection of the environment, requiring reviews so that the public and responsible officials are alerted to any environmental changes before they have reached ecological point of no return.

Sierra Club's petition states that the project site is important to wildlife and plant species, but that the CEC's “self-imposed artificial deadline” for approval led to impacts on Desert tortoise and other species remaining “significant and unavoided.”

The project would "radically transform" the entire 4,613 acres from an “undisturbed, remote, biologically rich desert habitat” into a “completely fenced industrial facility,” says the petition. “The effects of this transformation on biological resources would be devastating. The Project would result in destruction of all habitat for species on the Project site.” We would like to note that the original SunCatcher project by Tessera claimed to be environmentally sensitive by leaving some desert vegetation between dish pedestals, and that creosote shrubs would be mowed. If the project is converted to photovoltaic panels on pedestals, the exact same problems will remain with respect to biological resources and desert habitats.

Specifically Sierra Club takes issue with the high mortality of tortoises and destruction of high quality tortoise habitat that would result. This tortoise population was found to be healthy and reproducing, but the project would fragment this habitat and cut off a connectivity corridor for tortoises and other wildlife such as Bighorn sheep. The draft Tortoise Translocation Plan was inadequate to address concerns over the high mortality of tortoises that have resulted from prior translocations. During the August 2010 hearings, Commission staffs admitted that the project could impact as many as 897 tortoises, and kill up to 282.

The tortoises removed from the Ivanpah Britesource's solar trough plant are sick. The times the estimated number were jerked out of their winter burrows in November. They are being warehoused at a facility. Five of them are showing signs of respiratory illness.

I was at a demonstration Januarary 7 and 8, on an overpass on I-10 in eastern Riverside county. Present was Alfredo Figueroa and Philip Smith. A dance troop from Mexico and 30 or so activists from Searchlight, Nevada to SanDiego.

Alfredo is Yaqui-Chemehuevi who speaks English, Spanish, Yaqui and Nauhuatl. Disciplined for speaking Spanish as a child. He was invited to sing the Cancion de Joaquin, a ballad paying tribute to California's Robin Hood at the bicentennial in Washington D.C. He is also a veteran organizer with the VFW in Blythe and Napa.

Philip Smith is Chemehuevi from Blythe. A veteran of the Ward Valley protest that stopped the locating of a nuclear dump site in near Needles.

They are pissed.

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