It looked like a scene out of the 1930s, when factory-scale farms removed topsoil in the Midwest, creating dust storms that swept across the western states, reducing vast areas to a Dust Bowl. Is history repeating itself?
Residents of Ocotillo and other desert communities across the Southwest have recently voiced worries that industrial-scale wind and solar projects that stripped bare the earth would cause dust storms. Yesterday, a monster-scale dust cloud rolled across Ocotillo, blackening the sky and obscuring even the wind turbines that tower 500 feet above the town.
“The wind turbines are all pretty much stopped this morning, no wind,” says Jim Pelley, who shot these dramatic images. He added, “Looks like the wind turbines will need some new filters now.”
Winds of 50 miles per hour were forecast and the National Weather Service had issued a blowing dust warning late yesterday.
The dust poses potential health hazards to area residents, as well as headaches for cleaning up the mess. Desert soil harbors spores which cause Valley Fever, a potentially deadly disease that has reached epidemic levels in portions of the Southwest. During the Dust Bowls in the 1930s, respiratory health problems rose sharply, claiming lives, including many children. A recent PBS documentary recounted the Dust Bowl horrors in detail.
My own mother recalls the terror sparked by Dust Bowl storms during her childhood in a Texas prairie town, when children were warned to huddle under blankets as the choking dust enveloped their homes, seeping into bedrooms, filling their lungs, covering everything in sight without warning.
With multiple industrial-scale wind and solar projects proposed to scrape bare agricultural lands in San Diego’s East County, the potential to create dust storms is an issue that Supervisors and planners have failed to address to date, blowing off concerns raised by residents.
For Pattern Energy, the dust storm is the latest in a string of serious problems at its Ocotillo Express Wind Facility in Imperial Valley since its opening in December 2012.
The wind project was off-line for several weeks this spring after a blade fell off a turbine, prompting a worldwide shutdown of similar turbine models. The Native American Heritage Commission recently ruled that the federal government erred in approved the project atop sacred Native American burial grounds.
Five lawsuits remain in court on issues ranging from environmental damage to tribal concerns. Earlier this month, the eagle expert hired by Pattern for the project was convicted of illegal actions and operating without a state or federal license, raising new potential challenges.
The site has also been hit with flash floods, sits atop one of the most active earthquake faults in California, and now faces clean-up costs from the dust storm. Meanwhile, calls are mounting from the community to decommission the ill-fated project.
The timing for Pattern couldn’t be worse, since the company recently announced its intent to go public with Initial Public Offering (IPO).