OCOTILLO – A massive blade from one of the 112 wind turbines recently installed was found near a tower base Thursday, after plummeting onto the ground overnight, triggering safety concerns among officials and some residents.
No injuries were reported in the malfunction that comes less than a month after Pattern Energy, the developer of Ocotillo Wind Express project, announced it completed construction activities. But perhaps more importantly, just last month a similar Siemens turbine blade broke off in a wind farm in Iowa.
Through a statement Siemens Energy said the cause of the malfunction is unknown and that it “is working to determine if and how this is related” to the Iowa incident. The company also said it is curtailing all turbines with B53 blade type globally until they are considered safe.
Since January and up until Thursday, Ocotillo Wind Express had been partly operating and sending wind energy to San Diego even while construction activities were ongoing.
But the project is now shut down out of caution, said Matt Dallas, Pattern Energy spokesman, who via email noted turbines “will not return to operation until they have been evaluated and are deemed safe.”
Meanwhile the Bureau of Land Management, the lead permitting agency, said it was notified about the incident and that Pattern Energy and the BLM are conducting a thorough investigation and report of the incident. “Preliminary results indicate the blade became detached from the turbine rotor on Thursday,” said Doran Sanchez, spokesman for the BLM via email.
He added that archaeological monitors conducted biological and archaeological assessments, “and according to the preliminary assessments, no damages to sensitive biological or archaeological resources were reported.”
Imperial County Supervisor Jack Terrazas, who represents Ocotillo, said the breaking of a blade is “a concern for safety,” particularly to those who live near blades.
A few turbines are located somewhat close to Interstate 8 and there are a few residents who live as close as a half mile from blades reportedly as big as 747 Boeing passenger jet.
Terrazas was the sole vote against approving the project last year.
Imperial County Planning Director Armando Villa could not be reach for comments by deadline.
Meanwhile, some Ocotillo residents and environmentalists organized a press conference Thursday at the Community Center to voice their concerns.
“This was one of the things we complained about,” said activist Donna Tisdale, referring to the blade’s crash landing and added that the “Bureau of Land Management and Imperial County allowed these turbines far too close to communities and in public recreation areas.”
Tisdale noted she has three ongoing lawsuits against the project, which has prevailed over various lawsuits in the past.
“What happens with green energy projects is that they pretty much get a free pass and decision makers don’t want to touch them,” said Tisdale, “regardless of how much evidence you have against them, they don’t want to touch them.”
Some residents, environmentalists and local Native American tribes have long said the project is unsafe and expressed deep concerns over detrimental impacts to biological and archaeological resources found in the area. Many of those present at the press conference also spoke before the Board of Supervisors last year and voiced fears about malfunctions, at which time Pattern Energy’s senior developer Glen Hodges defended Siemens turbines quality.
“I believe that (this) catastrophic failure confirms that they have created a dangerous condition of public property. This whole BLM area is still designated as multiple use; it’s open to recreationalists, hikers, visitors,” said William Pate, who lives in San Diego but owns a home in Ocotillo. “I believe they’ve condemned this whole area. I don’t know how this area will remain multiple use,” he said.
Jim Pelley, a resident whose home is surrounded by turbines as close as a half mile away, also expressed disdain toward the project and said that “just seeing how this project was built we know it’s just a matter of time to have problems.” He alleged seeing oil leaks running down towers and said workers are “constantly working on these things.”
“We ask if there are problems,” Pelley went on to say, “and all they’ll tell us is routine maintenance, but it’s ongoing through weeks at a time.”
Ocotillo Wind was a priority in the Obama administration’s effort to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio and its permit was approved through a “fast-track” process, a priority condition achieved on a variety of criteria, like necessary public participation, environmental analysis and its likelihood of success in the permitting process.
“BLM is always concerned about public safety and work closely with the company to ensure all terms and conditions of the right-of-way grant are met, and the project is safe,” said Sanchez. “We will know more once we conclude our internal review and fully analyze the incident.”
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