FEDERAL JUDGE HALTS FIRST LARGE-SCALE SOLAR PROJECT ON PUBLIC LANDS
Judge grants Quechan Indian tribe’s request for temporary injunction on Tessera Solar plant in Imperial Valley; decision has ramifications for large-scale energy projects in East County and across the nation
By Miriam Raftery
December 16, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) – Local and statewide activists battling massive energy projects on public lands are praising a decision issued by U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns yesterday, while the CEO of Tessera Solar says he is "deeply disappointed" in the ruling.
The federal Judge issued a temporary restraining order halting construction on the first massive desert solar project authorized on public lands—a project that if built, would be one of the largest solar power plants in the world.
The Court ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately consult with the tribe regarding protection of 459 cultural resources identified at 300 locations on the site in Imperial County. Burns noted that the BLM’s draft environmental impact statement found that the project “may wholly or partially destroy all archaeological sites on the surface of the project area.”
The 10-mile-long project would entail scraping 6,000 acres of the desert floor and installing massive parabolic mirrored Sun Catchers made by Stirling Energy Systems. The project could produce 1,000 MW of power by 2012 and is slated to provide power to be transmitted over SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink lines through San Diego’s East County.
SDG&E did not respond to ECM's request for comment. But opponents of the project had plenty to say.
“Thank goodness there is still some wisdom and justice in the courts. We can celebrate! This decision could affect some of the other utility scale solar plants planned for the Mojave Desert,” said Terry Weiner with Solar Done Right, an organization that opposes the project and calls instead for local power generation through rooftop solar.
Tessera is under the gun financially due to a year-end deadline to begin construction in order to qualify for stimulus grant funds that expire December 31st. Tessera has also stated in an interview with Reuters that it was seeking additional investment to complete the project.
Although Congress may extend the grant program for an extra year, yesterday’s court decision “has a deeper meaning because Tesera is looking for investors on the project and with an injunction like this, it raises even more red flags than are already there,” said Donna Tisdale of Boulevard. Tisdale is founder of Backcountry Against Dumps and a member of Protect Our Communities Foundation.
The two groups, along with a third, East County Community Action Coalition, have funded litigation and filed lawsuits aiming to stop major energy projects in East County, including Sunrise Powerlink and the Rule Wind Farm. Tisdale revealed in a phone interview today with East County Magazine that the coalition will also be filing suit to halt the Imperial Valley solar project. “We have a broader base of issues than the Quechan,” Tisdale said.
Environmentalists, desert enthusiasts, and rural residents have objected to the project on numerous grounds including impacts on desert bighorn sheep and other threatened or endangered wildlife, destruction of historic Spanish and Native American trails, and more.
Preston J. Arrow-Weed, a member of the Quechan Native American tribe, called the proposed project “genocide of our tribal ways and culture” in an interview during a protest at the site November 15, as ECM previously reported.
The Quechan tribe has until Friday to e-mail a proposed order temporarily enjoining the project, a Reuters report published in the Los Angeles Times states. The article concludes that the injunction represents a “roadblock” that will “likely bolster the position of various groups that are fighting to stop construction of solar plants around the Southwest.”
The ramifications could extend beyond solar plants to also impact major wind farm projects and the Sunrise Powerlink project planned on public lands in San Diego’s East County.
Tisdale called the judge’s decision “well justified” adding, “I hope this grabs people’s attention that cultural resources have significant value and they cannot just be pushed aside. You have to take action to protect them. Basically these big projects are being built over their ancestors’ graves,” she said of the Native American tribes that lived in this area for 10,000 years or more. “Ceremonial sites, ancient trails, village sites, the whole gamut.” The dryness of the desert has preserved cultural resources here better than in many other regions, she noted.
Lawsuits filed by the coalition of East County-based organizations have raised cultural resource issues, among others. Though Tisdale acknowledges, “It carries much more weight if it comes from actual tribal members.”
To date, local tribes have not filed suits to halt energy projects in East County. But that could change.
“We may get to that point. This may be the catalyst,” said David Elliott, a Native American monitor who has worked at several major energy project proposed sites in East County, including Sunrise Powerlink and the Tule Wind Farm project, as well as a desert wind project in Octotillo.
Elliott has previously voiced concerns over destruction of cultural resources on public lands in McCain Valley, where multiple wind projects as well as Sunrise Powerlink are planned. In addition, he revealed tha a “major ceremonial medicine, herb preparation site and cremation burial site with human remains” has just been found in Jacumba where a Powerlink tower is planned.
He expressed frustration over SDG&E’s response thus far to requests to move a tower and said further discussions are planned with SDG&E and the BLM this week. “We are hoping for a happy medium to move it,” he said, but added, “If not, we’ll go to the (California) Native American Heritage Commission and we’ll probably end up like Padre Dam…For SDG&E, it’s all about time, contracts and money.”
Padre Dam defied a request by the Native American Heritage Commission to halt construction on a water project in Lakeside found to have significant cultural resources including Native American human remains. Viejas and the California Attorney General filed a lawsuit and won an injunction from a judge halting construction on that project. Padre has since agreed to conduct additional cultural resource assessments on the property.
Statewide, several major solar projects have run into legal obstacles, Reuters reports. Environmental groups have filed suit to block a Solargen plant in the Panoche Valley. First Solar’s Topaz Plan in San Luis Obispo has drawn opposition from environmental groups over the impact on endangered San Joaquin kit foxes. SunPower’s proposed California Valley Solar Ranch also faces opposition on habitat destruction grounds in San Luis Obispo.
Robert Lukefahr, CEO of Tesera Solar, issued a statement indicating the company is “deeply disappointed” in the federal court ruling. “This ruling sets back our ability to provide clean, renewable power to Southern California and delays our ability to bring jobs and economic development to a region with the highest unemployment rate in America,” he said of Imperial County. Lukefahr added that the company has engaged in “lengthy and comprehensive” consultation to meet government guidelines and minimize the project’s impact.
“We are confident that upon a full consideration of the extensive record of the federal agencies’ efforts, the Court will understand that the BLM and the DOI fully complied with both the letter and spirit of the environmental laws and will allow the project to proceed,” Lukefahr concluded. “We fully expect this to be a short-term delay while the merits are fully considered.”
"The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for stewardship of our public lands. The BLM is committed to manage, protect and improve these lands in a manner to serve the needs of the American people. Management is based upon the principles of multiple use and sustained yield of our nation's resources within a framework of environmental responsibility and scientific technology. These resources include recreation, rangelands, timber, minerals, watershed, fish and wildlife habitat, wilderness, air and scenic quality, as well as scientific and cultural values." - BLM mission statement