An environmental group, a labor union and neighbors of the project site claim a 10,000-acre wind farm on public land on the western edge of the Mojave Desert will threaten protected species and disturb nearby residents.
Ocotillo Express, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pattern Energy Group, wants to build the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility on 10,000 acres of public land 5 miles west of Ocotillo in southeastern California. Ocotillo, population 206, is about 25 miles west of El Centro.
The Desert Protective Council, the Labors’ International Union of North America Local Union No. 1184, and Hector Casillas and John Norton sued the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, and the developers, Ocotillo Express and Pattern Energy Group, in Federal Court.
The wind farm will generate 315 megawatts of electricity using 112 wind turbines, according to the BLM website.
“According to the record of decision (‘ROD’) released by BLM, the OWEF would involve the ‘installation of wind turbines … the construction of new access roads, an operation and maintenance (O&M) facility with associated utility routing, the electrical collection system, the project substation, the utility switchyard, utility staging and storage areas, up to three permanent meteorological towers, temporary work areas, fencing, and a concrete batch plan/construction laydown area,'” the complaint states.
“All of this is slated to be constructed in an area which was, until BLM’s approval of this project, protected by the CDCA Plan [California Desert Conservation Area] against projects that would disturb the desert ecosystem such as wind development projects. Thus, BLM has amended the CDCA plan to allow for wind projects such as OWEF.”
The California Desert Conservation Area covers more than 25 million acres of public land, 10 million of them overseen by The Bureau of Land Management. At the direction of Congress, the BLM created a plan to develop and protect the land in the late 1970s.
Superheated air from the immense Mojave Desert is drawn toward the cooler ocean over the mountains just west of the proposed wind farm. Similar geography and climate inspired the construction of the giant wind farm west of Palm Springs, about 60 miles to the north.
But the plaintiffs claims that the wind farm, and the county’s approval of the project and its environmental impact report, violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and state planning and zoning laws.
Laurens Silver with the California Environmental Law Project said the project’s location is problematic.
“It’s adjacent to the small community of Ocotillo, less than a half mile away from the nearest residents,” Silver told Courthouse news in an interview.
“It’s also next to the Anza-Borrego State Park, the largest desert recreation area in the state.”
Anza-Borrego, which borders the project area on the west, is home to several endangered animal and plant species. Seasonal wildflowers and more than 100 miles of hiking trails attract thousands of visitors each year.
“BLM has identified the project site as containing high-value lands for numerous protected species, including golden eagle, burrowing owl, Peninsula bighorn sheep, migratory birds, bats, and other species,” according to the complaint.
“In evaluating the project’s impact on these and other protected species, BLM ignored relevant scientific information, failed to assess the baseline from which to measure impacts, failed to fully and accurately assess some impacts and overlooked others, and failed to provide avoidance or mitigation measures sufficient to bring the project into compliance with law.”
The plaintiffs say the Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved the project despite its inadequate impact report, which violates NEPA, CEQA, and the California Fish and Game Code.
They claim the final environmental impact report “fails to adequately consider, analyze, or disclose the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of the OWEF project on the environment, including but not limited to: adverse effects on terrestrial migratory species, including but not limited to … the CDCA population of golden eagle, Swainson’s hawk, Peninsula bighorn sheep and other species.”
Laurens Silver said the threat to migratory birds is one of the most pressing concerns.
“There is real concern as to the effects of the project on raptors and other migratory birds,” Silver said. “Golden eagles and Swainson’s hawk are in distinct danger from high mortality rates associated with turbines.
“It is particularly significant to the population of hawks. “Several thousand migrate up from Argentina in the spring, and use the corridor and land somewhere near Borrego Springs, which is in the project area.
“There are protective measures [in the impact report and record of decision], but the question is whether these measures will be effective,” Silver said.
The plaintiffs seek writ of mandate ordering the board to revoke its approval of the project and stop construction until the county does another environmental study that complies with CEQA and the California Fish and Game Code.
They also ask that the BLM record of decision and right-of-way permit be vacated until another federal impact study can be done that complies with NEPA and the Federal Land Policy Management Act.
The plaintiffs also object to the noise. A county ordinance prohibits the wind farm from creating noise louder than 70 decibels, calculated at the house nearest the site. Plaintiffs say the sound level would exceed that.
“There is substantial concern in the nearby communities that noise from the wind turbines will cause people to lose sleep, and subject them to adverse health impacts,” Silver said.
The individual plaintiffs live in El Centro and Niland, north of El Centro. Both own property within a mile of the project area. They claim that construction and operation of the wind farm will prevent them from enjoying their property and reduce its value.
The plaintiff labor union acknowledges that the project could bring around 350 construction jobs to the area, but say it will expose its members to an unhealthy work environment, such as the danger of catching Valley Fever, because health risks associated with construction work were not analyzed.
The Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved the Ocotillo wind farm project in April.
The plaintiffs claims that the county “prejudicially abused its discretion and failed to proceed in a manner required by law,” by, among other things: granting Ocotillo a variance under county land ordinances even though the wind turbines exceed height limits; failing to provide adequate analyses of and mitigation measures to reduce the project’s threat to protected species; and rejecting possible alternatives to the project without saying why.
“It’s important to understand that the Desert Protection Council is not necessarily opposed to wind projects,” Silver said.
“What matters is that the project be sited appropriately. For example, there are substantial concerns in the local tribal communities about the project’s impact on burial grounds and artifacts, but they did not adequately investigate other sites in Imperial County.
“What we have here is a good project that’s in the wrong place.”