Environmentalists who are suing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar over approval of a 200-MW wind farm in Nevada say regulators relied on a “one-sided” and “incomplete” environmental analysis to pursue a renewable energy project while “disregarding” other policies that protect endangered species, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit, which was filed April 10 in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, names Salazar, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as defendants. The lawsuit is over the Searchlight Wind Energy project. The proposed project was approved based on findings that it “best fulfills the agency’s statutory mission and responsibilities, considering economic, environmental, and technical factors,” according to a BLM record of decision.
But the complainants, including Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, and Basin and Range Watch, say the federal government put development ahead of mandated conservation. Salazar’s decision, which was based on an “inadequate and incomplete analysis” of the project’s impact, was “arbitrary” and “capricious,” according to the complaint. “Secretary Salazar selectively relied upon his own agency’s internal policies seeking to promote renewable energy on public lands, while disregarding other policies calling for protection of sensitive [Endangered Species Act]-listed species,” the complaint said.
In addition to harming animals in the area, including the Mojave Desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and eagles, the project would “mar an area of dark night skies” and “degrade human health and the economic livelihood of residents and businesses in the Searchlight area,” according to the complaint.
2nd wind project approved on public land in Nevada
Searchlight Wind Energy, a subsidiary of Duke Energy Corp., is developing the 87-turbine wind farm on roughly 9,300 acres of public land near Searchlight in Clark County, Nev., about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas. The project footprint would disturb between 152 and 160 acres and connect to transmission lines owned by Western Area Power Administration.
Regulators said their review of the Searchlight wind farm was undertaken as part of Salazar’s goal to complete reviews for 10,000 MW of renewable energy by 2012. To date, the Department of the Interior has surpassed that goal, with the approval of 11,500 MW of renewable power projects on public lands. The Searchlight facility is the second wind farm ever approved for construction on public land in Nevada, according to a project fact sheet.
The project would involve widening more than eight miles of roads and construction of more than 27 miles of new roads, 8.7 miles of new overhead transmission lines and nearly 8 miles of collection lines, including 2.7 miles underground, according to the complaint.
“The BLM, after careful consideration of the potential effects of the proposed project, has decided to authorize [Searchlight Wind Energy’s installation] including associated infrastructure, and the switching station proposed by [Western Area Power Administration],” the record of decision stated. “Authorization of the facilities satisfies the purpose and need for the proposed action … taking into consideration the provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and other applicable federal laws and policies.”
Project will ‘dominate’ desert, mountains
While regulators said they considered a host of concerns related to conservation, the plaintiffs in the case painted a stark picture of development that will overtake the land, kill off endangered animals and ruin a local economy.
The wind farm and its transmission lines “will dominate the Searchlight desert and mountains,” and the turbines, “with spinning blades that reach as high as the top of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas,” will ruin the area for visitors, residents and businesses, the complaint stated, as well as cause “significant harm” to an array of animals through “direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.”
“Construction and operation of the project will fragment thousands of acres of desert tortoise habitat, killing and disturbing tortoises and adversely modifying designated critical habitat,” the complaint said. “Federal defendants have not addressed these impacts fully in their inadequate” reviews, and absent injunctive relief, “construction of the project may commence later in 2013, threatening immediate and irreparable harm,” it said. The project is expected online in 2015, according to SNL Energy data.
In addition to Searchlight’s potential environmental impact, concerns also have been raised recently about the hit property owners in the area might take. The Nevada Journal reported that local assessors have declined to speculate on the potential impact, though the news website cited sources that said properties within two to three miles of other wind turbines have lost between 25% and 60% of their value.
One of the plaintiffs, a real estate agent named Ellen Ross, owns 17 acres of land located less than 800 feet from the project site. “The project will adversely affect Ellen Ross’ interests by introducing an industrial-scale wind energy generation and transmission project” into the area, “thereby harming her use and enjoyment of her land and the public natural resources of the area,” according to the complaint.