Environmentalists and three Nevada residents are suing the Interior Department over its approval of the Searchlight Wind Energy Project, arguing the wind farm would sit in an area of the Mojave Desert that would cause widespread damage to sensitive wildlife habitat.
Two groups – Basin and Range Watch and Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains – and three residents who live near what would become the Silver State’s largest wind project filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada in Las Vegas against former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. They claim the defendants all failed to properly analyze the full impacts of the project on sensitive wildlife species and nearby residents.
Salazar signed a record of decision (ROD) last month approving the 200-megawatt Searchlight Wind project, which if built on 18,949 acres of federal land about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas would have the capacity to power about 70,000 homes (E&ENews PM, March 13).
The two groups and three residents, one of whom lives within 800 feet of the project site, allege in the 30-page complaint that the ROD Salazar signed last month was based on a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that “presents a one-sided and incomplete portrait of the proposed project and its likely adverse environmental impacts.”
“The Project would pose significant adverse harm to a wide array of sensitive and protected species – including desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, bald eagles, and resident and migratory birds and bats – through direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts,” the complaint said.
Instead of addressing these issues, “Salazar selectively relied upon his own agency’s internal policies seeking to promote renewable energy on public lands, while disregarding other policies” that call for protecting sensitive species like golden eagles, according to the complaint.
The complaint also singles out FWS’s biological opinion of the Searchlight Wind project, arguing that it “fails to consider the impacts of noise from the project’s construction and operation” on the federally threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and the surrounding Piute-Eldorado Valley Area of Critical Environmental Concern that was established primarily for the tortoise.
The complaint claims that BLM, FWS and Salazar in approving the project violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, among others.
The plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Miranda Du to vacate and remand the final EIS, biological opinion and ROD back to the agencies, and to issue an injunction preventing BLM “from allowing construction to commence on the project through ground-clearing, site preparation, or other such actions until such time as Defendants have fully complied with the law.”
The plaintiffs want BLM and FWS to redo the documents to consider the larger impacts not only to sensitive wildlife but also to the property values and quality of life of those living nearby, said Dave Becker, a Portland, Ore.-based lawyer representing the two groups and three residents.
The 428-foot-tall wind turbines would be visible from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the east, as well as the town of Searchlight, Nev., where the light and noise from the spinning turbines could affect property values and quality of life – none of which was considered by BLM in its EIS, Becker said.
“There are many species we are concerned about with this project,” he said. “But one of the species we are most concerned about is the human species. This project is too close to where tortoises, eagles and people live.”
Government, industry response
Jeff Krauss, a BLM spokesman in Washington, D.C., said that the agency is still reviewing the lawsuit and that BLM does not comment on pending litigation.
But Tammie McGee, a spokeswoman for Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy Corp., the project proponent, defended the federal review process. She noted in an emailed statement that the project “has undergone an approximate five-year National Environmental Policy Act review resulting in a comprehensive environmental impact statement.”
Duke Energy had already agreed before the ROD was signed to scale back the project to reduce visual impacts in an area that sits less than 2 miles west of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. It also agreed to reduce the number of turbines in an effort to lessen impacts to the Mojave Desert tortoise.
Duke Energy, which is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has said it wants to begin producing electricity to the grid by 2015.
The start of construction, however, is not imminent because Duke Energy does not have a power purchase agreement with a utility committing to accept the electricity produced from the wind farm, said Gregory Helseth, BLM’s renewable energy program lead for southern Nevada.
Duke Energy is still negotiating the conditions of a right-of-way grant with BLM that will lay out various stipulations the company must complete prior to construction, Helseth said. For Searchlight Wind, those stipulations will include developing stormwater and air quality plans, as well as setting up tortoise monitors, he said.
“Potential impacts of the project have been addressed in extensive detail, and Duke Energy Renewables will institute all appropriate mitigations as required by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies,” McGee said.
Despite the problems, the Searchlight Wind project was hailed last month by Salazar as a major advancement of the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to use federal lands to drive the development of clean energy from renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal power.
The Searchlight Wind project is one of eight large-scale wind projects approved by BLM since 2009. The eight wind farms, if all are built, would have the total capacity to produce up to 4,060 MW of electricity, or enough to power 1.4 million homes, according to BLM statistics.
Overall, the Obama administration has approved 37 solar, wind and geothermal power projects covering roughly 240,000 acres of federal land with a total capacity to power nearly 4 million homes.
Of the eight approved wind projects, the only large-scale wind farm approved and in operation to date in Nevada is the 150 MW Spring Valley Wind Energy Facility, which BLM approved in 2010. Until the Spring Valley project went into operation in August, Nevada was the only Western state with no active wind farms, and one of 12 such states nationwide, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Environmental, visual impacts
But Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of the Basin and Range Watch group that is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the high desert country is no place for an industrial-scale wind farm like Searchlight Wind.
Emmerich said numerous species of birds use the nearby Colorado River as a migration corridor roughly 10 miles away from the proposed wind farm site. He also said that the area is habitat for golden eagles and that he saw a golden eagle flying in the neighboring Lake Mead National Recreation Area as recently as January.
“That puts a risk factor in there,” he said.
Also at risk is the Mojave Desert tortoise. Fish and Wildlife has estimated the Searchlight Wind project area contains more than 388 acres of tortoise habitat.
Concerns about tortoises outlined in the complaint deal with possible impacts during construction, as well as noise during operation. Tortoises have “relatively sensitive hearing,” according to the complaint, and “background noise has been shown to mask vocal signals essential for individual survival and reproductive success.”
Neither the final EIS nor the FWS biological opinion “evaluates the effect of chronic noise from the project’s operation on tortoises on the site,” according to the complaint. “For these reasons, wind projects on or adjacent to desert tortoise habitat reduce and impair such habitat far beyond the collective footprint of the facilities and structures.”
Bighorn sheep are also a major concern, according to the complaint, which notes the project could interfere with winter migration routes.
“This is not a solar project we’re talking about, where they would remove 100 percent of the habit,” Emmerich said. “But it would still fragment the area with roads and trenching for underground cables. And there would be a lot of traffic on the roads during the 30-year life of the project. More roads mean more motorists, and that means the potential for more road kills.”
There’s also a quality-of-life concern outlined in the lawsuit.
Of the three individuals named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Ronald Van Fleet Sr. is a member of the Fort Mojave tribe who “uses the BLM lands that will be affected by the project for spiritual activities, including spiritual runs.”
The two other individuals listed as plaintiffs – Ellen Ross and Judy Bundorf – live near the project site, and both are listed in the complaint as “active” members of Basin and Range Watch, as well as Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains.
Ross is listed in the complaint as owning 17 acres of property as close as 800 feet from the project site. Bundorf, according to the complaint, owns 90 acres of property about 1.4 miles north of the wind farm project site.
In other places, wind turbines associated with the project “would be constructed as close as 1,345 feet from residential properties,” according to the complaint, which concludes the final EIS “fails to disclose the full extent of properties that would be visually and aurally affected by the project.”
Similarly, the complaint asserts that the final EIS “fails to disclose or analyze effects of the project on recreation and tourism in the Searchlight area.” Instead, according to the complaint, the EIS estimated that as many as 800 visitors might be drawn to view the turbines without ever evaluating “whether the 300,000 visitors who [currently] come to the area for its scenic beauty and to use and enjoy the public lands and resources of the area will avoid the newly-industrialized area and seek recreation and tourism opportunities elsewhere.”
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