Tribal group seeks court-ordered halt to Blythe II solar project construction

A Native American group, which filed a federal lawsuit last December over a 485-MW solar project, asked the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on March 16 for a preliminary injunction stopping any project construction while this case is being argued.

“Plaintiff Colorado River Indian Tribes (‘CRIT’ or ‘Tribes’) seeks a preliminary injunction to stop construction of the Modified Blythe Solar Power Project (‘Blythe II’ or ‘Project’), a large solar energy project approved on federal land near CRIT’s Reservation,” said the March 16 filing. “Preliminary injunctive relief is necessary to preserve the status quo pending resolution of CRIT’s claims, which allege that [the U.S. Bureau of Land Management] repeatedly violated federal law in approving the Project.

“The Project is located within the ancestral homelands of CRIT’s members and would dramatically and adversely impact cultural resources held sacred by them. CRIT is informed that construction is scheduled to begin in April 2015. Preliminary injunctive relief is appropriate here because CRIT and its members will suffer substantial, irreparable, and immediate harm if Project construction is allowed to proceed.

“CRIT’s members have strong cultural, religious, and historic ties to the Project site and resources located there. The artifacts that will be affected by the Project belonged to ancestors of CRIT’s members, who have occupied this area since time immemorial. The ancient trails that cross the desert in the vicinity of the Project site still play a significant role in the religious practices of the Tribes’ members. Once these resources are destroyed by Project construction, they will be lost forever.

“CRIT is also likely to succeed on the merits of its claims. BLM plainly violated the National Historic Preservation Act (‘NHPA’) by failing to consult with CRIT before approving the Project. In fact, BLM did not engage in any meetings that could be considered government-to-government consultation prior to approving the Project. In addition, BLM allowed certain pre-construction, ground-disturbing activities to go forward before required cultural resource monitoring and treatment plans were in place, in direct violation of the Project’s ‘programmatic agreement’ for protection of historic and cultural resources. BLM also violated the National Environmental Policy Act (‘NEPA’) by approving the Project without first taking a ‘hard look’ at the impacts to historic and cultural resources; indeed, the environmental impact statement (‘EIS’) for the Project admits that the agency failed to identify impacted resources prior to Project approval. Finally, the Project is plainly inconsistent with land use designations adopted by the United States in the 1970s and 80s to protect the Project site’s fragile desert ecosystem and important cultural resources.”

CRIT faulted BLM for a “fast track” permitting process for renewable energy projects dating back to 2009. Since 2009, BLM has approved or is still actively considering ten utility-scale solar energy projects within 50 miles of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, it added.

One of these early, fast-tracked solar projects was the Blythe Solar Power Project (“Blythe I” or “Original Project”). In 2009, Palo Verde Solar I LLC applied to BLM for a right-of-way grant to develop a 1,000-MW solar plant on approximately 7,000 acres of federal land northwest of the town of Blythe. Blythe I proposed to use “solar parabolic trough” technology, which uses arrays of parabolic mirrors to collect energy from the sun and refocus it on a tube running along the bottom of the mirrors. The tube is filled with fluid that generates high-pressure steam. This steam is then fed into a steam turbine generator, which produces electricity. BLM approved Blythe I in 2010.

In 2013, NextEra Blythe Solar Energy Center LLC purchased the unbuilt assets of Blythe I. Shortly thereafter, NextEra relinquished approximately 35% of the right-of-way grant area and submitted a new plan to develop the remaining 65% with a photovoltaic solar facility (Blythe II). This new project would generate 485 MW on approximately 4,000 acres of federal land. BLM issued the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project in May 2014.

The Interior Dept. and BLM filed a Feb. 3 answer to the lawsuit that on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis admitted certain basic facts in the case and denied the accusations. For example, the response said: “Federal Defendants admit that CRIT submitted comments to the BLM before the BLM approved the Blythe II Project. The remaining allegations set forth in Paragraph 8 consist of Plaintiff’s characterization of their comments, which speak for themselves and are the best evidence of their content. Federal Defendants deny any characterization inconsistent with the plain language, meaning, or context of those comments.”

Another response said: “Federal Defendants aver that as reflected in the cumulative impacts sections of the Blythe II Final Environmental Impact Statement (‘FEIS’), there are 11 utility-scale projects within approximately 50 miles of the project, totaling approximately 30,705 acres; Federal Defendants otherwise lack knowledge or information sufficient to admit or deny the remaining allegations set forth in Paragraph 25.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.