Plans to put a pumped storage hydro-electric plant on the site of a former iron ore mine at Eagle Mountain look to be facing fierce opposition from some Desert Center residents who live near the proposed project.
“You need to rethink your recommendation and refuse this project because it’s insane,” said Donna Charpied, who with husband Larry raised numerous objections to the project during a two-hour public meeting Thursday at University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus.
The Charpieds were reacting to a draft environmental report that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued for the project, which would turn two empty mine pits into reservoirs and build a power plant more than 1,000 feet under ground.
The couple, who have farmed jojoba in Desert Center for 30 years, were among 40 people who turned out for the 1 p.m. meeting, which was to be followed by another meeting at 7 p.m. for public comment.
At the center of the controversy is a 1,300-megawatt pumped storage plant that project developer Eagle Crest Energy of Santa Monica says could provide reliable backup power for the Coachella Valley’s wind turbines and the industrial-scale solar plants being planned on federal land east of Joshua Tree National Park.
“You can’t make the sun shine and the wind blow,” said Jeffrey Harvey, a consultant for Eagle Crest Energy, presenting the company’s plan for the plant. “We have to have backup generation and storage.”
Pumped storage plants generally consist of a lower and upper reservoir connected by a large underground pipe, which runs through an underground power plant.
At times of low power use, water is pumped from the lower to the upper reservoir, and then flows down through the generator when extra power is needed.
About 40 pumped storage plants already exist in the U.S., with more than 350 worldwide.
Commission staff has tentatively recommended approval of the project, providing Eagle Crest agrees to additional measures such as close monitoring to ensure water levels in the Chuckwalla Valley aquifer remain stable – a key concern for the Charpieds.
Donna Charpied said the aquifer still had not completely recovered from a draw-down caused by the large-scale jojoba farming in the area in the 1970s and 1980s.
Filling the reservoirs for the pumped storage plant “will exacerbate our aquifer to depletion,” she said. “This aquifer is from water that’s 5,000 to 30,000 years old.”
The Eagle Mountain site is controversial for a number of reasons:
The site for the pumped storage plant is adjacent to the site for the proposed Eagle Mountain landfill, another embattled project that was put on indefinite hold last August when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a land swap that is essential for the landfill to go forward.
Kaiser Ventures, which owns the land, has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in the interim, has denied Eagle Crest or federal officials access to the site for preliminary environmental studies.
“How can they approve a project they haven’t studied?” said Terry Cook, vice president for Kaiser Ventures, who attended the meeting, but did not speak publicly. “They haven’t been on the property.”
The lack of current information has raised another red flag for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must also sign off on the project.
“We need to know the approximate number of animals in the area so we can provide accurate analysis,” said Felicia Sirchia, a biologist with the service. “If you want us to assess the impact, we need more specific information.”
Seth Shteir, a field representative of the National Parks Conservation Association, raised concerns about the impact of construction noise and vibration on endangered species, including the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep.
Both Shteir and the Charpieds raised concerns about ravens, coyotes and other predators that could be drawn by the transmission lines and the project’s above-ground reservoirs.
Kenneth Hogan, a fish biologist with the commission, acknowledged the problems with the environmental report but said staff recommendations would ensure that any information gaps would be addressed before going forward.
“We’re not proponents of any project,” he said. “We’re advocates of the process.”
He expects a final environmental report later this summer but, he said, a final commission vote cannot occur until all environmental reports are submitted.
Steven Lowe, president of Eagle Crest, said he remains committed to the project because he believes it can help make renewable energy more reliable and reduce carbon emissions.
The company is committed to working with residents such as the Charpieds, he said, for example, by insuring adequate water levels for wells in the area, even if it means digging new ones.
If such actions don’t work, he said, “the project doesn’t happen.”
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