Tuesday, January 1, 2013

BLM Signals Approval for Searchlight Wind Project Despite Objections

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last month issued the final environmental impact statement for Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind energy project, signaling initial approval for the company to industrialize nearly 29 square miles of Mojave Desert habitat near the small town of Searchlight, Nevada. Once the Department of Interior signs the record of decision -- expected early this year -- Duke Energy will transform this peaceful corner of the desert with 87 wind turbines (each standing taller than the Statue of Liberty) 35 miles of new gravel roads, and 16 miles of new transmission and collector lines, according to the BLM assessment. Construction will require over 9,000 trips by diesel trucks, and tons of cement and steel.

Potential Impacts on Wildlife Are Extensive
The area targeted by Duke Energy for the project is full of creosote bushes and Mojave yucca that can be hundreds of years old, and is surrounded by the Piute - El Dorado Critical Habitat Unit for the threatened desert tortoise. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates the project could displace or kill at least 50 desert tortoises, although USFWS admits that the total impact on the beleaguered reptile is difficult to estimate. According to the USFWS' biological opinion, 95 tortoises were observed during surveys of a portion of the project area.  

Bird and bat species that frequent the area are also at risk, including golden eagles that were observed during an earlier survey for the project.  Surveys conducted based on the USFWS' voluntary land-based wind energy guidelines found at least 10 red-tailed hawk nests within two miles of the wind project.  Within 10 miles of the project surveys identified an additional 16 active raptor nests, including 3 golden eagle nests as well as burrowing owls, and 16 species of bats that are either resident in the project area or migratory -- 7 of them considered Federal Species of Special Concern.  

The survey estimates that the project may only kill one golden eagle every five years, but admits that this estimate is based on insufficient understanding of local golden eagle behavior.  The report does not estimate fatalities for other raptors or bats, despite their extensive use of the Searchlight area for nesting and foraging.

This picture was taken from the approximate location of the Searchlight Wind energy project's proposed laydown area and southern substation.  Spirit Mountain is visible in the distance.
Agency and Public Concerns Unresolved
According to a review of agency consultation documents, public and organization comments received in response to a FOIA request and later made available on line, the BLM's environmental review does not adequately address key concerns.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pointed out in comments to the BLM that the draft air quality assessment incorrectly stated that PM10 (particulate matter caused by construction activity and industrial processes that can damage health and reduce visibility) would be below thresholds identified by air quality regulations.  In fact, the draft environmental review estimated that PM10 emissions would be 97 tons per year for the 8-12 month construction period of the wind project, exceeding the threshold of 70 tons per year.   In the final air quality assessment, however, the BLM states that PM10 emissions would only be 64.7 tons per year, without explaining the discrepancy between the draft number that exceeded regulated thresholds, and the final number that is just five tons under the threshold.
  • The EPA, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and other public commenters noted the draft environmental review did not provide specific estimates of raptor or tortoise mortality. Although the final environmental impact statement provides more details than the draft regarding potential impacts, as well as a history of consultation between USFWS and Duke Energy, the assessment dismisses the likely impacts the project will have on raptor foraging habitat.  Despite a survey identifying golden eagle use of the area and nearby nests, the report uses data on golden eagle behavior in Idaho to conclude that the eagles in the Mojave will rarely use the project site for foraging.  The project's impacts would be measured after it is approved during post-construction mortality surveys.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion regarding impacts on tortoise habitat points out that distinguishing between permanent and "temporary" habitat disturbance is irrelevant for near and medium term impacts since perennial shrub cover may take up to 100 years to be restored.  Yet the final environmental impact statement still maintains that only 152 acres will be permanently disturbed, and 249 acres "temporarily" disturbed.  Of note, this final acreage is higher than the disturbance assessed in the USFWS biological opinion.
  • The National Park Service (NPS) expressed doubt about the accuracy of the BLM's visual and noise impacts assessment on nearby wilderness and the scenic values of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The NPS strongly objected to the placement of a transmission switching station adjacent to the NPS' entrance station on a scenic road into the Lake Mead area, but the final environmental impact statement depicts no change in response to NPS concerns.  The project will also be visible from the Nellis Wash Wilderness area, according to the NPS comments, degrading the "wilderness" character of the area.
If built, the project would supply 200 MW of electricity during windy days, although that same amount of energy can be generated more reliably and without destruction of remote desert with solar on already-disturbed lands and rooftops.

The project site was an excellent location for a peaceful camp site in April 2012.  Coyotes could be heard howling in the distance at night, and song birds could be heard at dusk and dawn.  Plenty of active reptile and mammal burrows along washes.

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