Conservation Group, Native Americans Challenge Solar Power Project

Published February 7, 2011

A nonprofit conservation group and a Native American cultural group have sued the federal government, claiming officials illegally rushed approval of a major solar power project in California’s Mojave Desert.

The complaints filed against Brightsource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar energy project are the latest in a string of lawsuits against solar power projects on behalf of environmental and Native American groups.

Endangered Species Concerns
Ivanpah covers 5.4 square miles within the Mojave Desert. “It’s an extremely large area, and the location is in an environmentally sensitive area,” said Dr. Michael Connor, California director for Western Watersheds Project.

Ivanpah is home to the endangered desert tortoise and other sensitive species such as bighorn sheep and a variety of rare plants.

Western Watersheds alleges in its suit U.S. regulators rushed to “accommodate massive renewable energy projects vying for multi-billion dollar federal tax credits originally due to expire on December 31, 2010.”

“The environmental review was sort of geared toward getting this project approved before the end of 2010 so that they could meet the funding deadlines,” Connor says.

“There were all kinds of problems associated with the environmental review,” Connor explained. “One of our concerns with the environmental process is that it was extremely rushed and they failed to give consideration to alternatives.”

Alternative Sites Ignored
Connor said Brightsource Energy should have considered other sites, such as Ivanpah Lake Bed, near the project’s proposed site.

“That’s a site that clearly if there was construction on the dry lake bed, it would be less of an impact to many of the sensitive species of the area, and there is a much better probability that that area would recover when the project is no longer needed,” Connor observed.

Connor said Western Watersheds Project proposed Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed as an alternative during the process.

“Unfortunately the agencies didn’t consider that. They basically just dismissed it,” said Connor.

Native Americans Oppose
La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle Advisory Committee, a Native American cultural protection group, has also filed suit against the Ivanpah project and five other proposed solar projects. The projects combined would grade and develop 23,842 acres of desert lands that are home to Native American cultural sites.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar failed to consult adequately with Native Americans, as required under Section 106 of the National Register of Historic Places, in his rush to fast-track the solar power projects, La Cuna de Aztlan claims.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.