American Indian Tribe Sues Interior Over Imperial Valley Solar Project

The Quechan Tribe has filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior for not completing analysis of the Imperial Valley Solar projects impacts on cultural resources, according to a copy of the civil action.  The 709 megawatt Imperial Valley Solar project was proposed by Tessera Solar LLC for nearly 10 square miles of public land.  The Department of the Interior approved the company's proposal for the site in October, as did the California Energy Commission (CEC).

Because the project is being constructed on public land administered by the federal government, the Department of the Interior is obligated to assess a range of impacts before issuing a final decision.  The Tribe alleges that the Department of the Interior did not conduct a thorough assessment of the solar project's impacts on cultural resources -- such as sites of historical and religious significance to the Tribe -- and artifacts that would be lost during the construction of the energy project.  The Tribe noted that it raised objections to the site during public review of the draft environmental impact statement, in which the Department of the Interior brushed aside concerns of cultural significance and its responsibility to conduct a review consistent with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

According to the civil action:
Interior did not determine the NHPA-eligibility of resources located within the Project Area prior to approving the Imperial Valley ROD and the Programmatic Agreement, and made its decision without taking the required "hard look" at the affected cultural environment or the impacts to NHPA-eligible resources.
As noted in a previous post, the California Energy Commission acknowledged that the Imperial Valley Solar power project would result in significant damage to cultural sites, but issued an "override" which basically put short-term economic interests above those of cultural or biological significance:
"Therefore, this Decision overrides the remaining significant unavoidable impacts that may result from this project, even with the implementation of the required mitigation measures described in this Decision."
There are two faults in the CEC and Department of the Interior approval of the site.
  • The CEC and Department of the Interior failed to consider viable alternatives to the Imperial Valley Solar site.  As noted in the Tribe's civil action, neither organization ever considered separate public land designated for more intense use (such as energy) as an alternative.  The Imperial Valley Solar site falls mostly on "Class L" land, which means the government should only permit activities of "lower intensity" on the land.  It is fair to say that building one of the world's largest solar facilities that will destroy the existing landscape is not "low intensity".
  • Neither the CEC nor the Department of the Interior conducted a thorough survey of the cultural resources on the site, which means they fail to properly inform decision makers of the overall costs of approving the project. The whole point of the NEPA law (National Environmental Policy Act) is to ensure that public parties have adequate voice in federal decision-making and that the policymakers are aware of the direct and indirect impacts of a particular action.  
The Department of the Interior specifically created a "fast track" list of projects that it sought to approve before the end of the year so that energy companies could qualify for government subsidies, which were set to expire next year.  In doing so, however, the Department of the Interior modified its policy toward the permitting of energy projects without proper environmental review, and began to cut corners in order to expedite approval.  The Imperial Valley Solar project was on the "fast track" list.

The project is located in Colorado Desert habitat in Southern California.  In addition to sites of cultural significance, the project would have impacts on the threatened flat-tailed horned lizard and foraging habitat for Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.

Ten square miles of mirrors would replace prime desert habitat and sites of historical and cultural significance.

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