News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

San Diego County Solar Project to Proceed Based On Illegal Science

Suspect and illegally collected data on golden eagles is apparently being used to approve solar projects in San Diego County | Photo: the objectivesea photography/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Here's an interesting bit of news first reported by the San Diego County-based East County Magazine: The County is working on approval of 1,490 acres of solar projects near the town of Boulevard based in part on wildlife studies performed illegally by a biologist later convicted in Federal court for related offenses.

The projects, proposed for four discrete sites by Soitec Solar, hired the controversial Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) to perform studies of the sites' potential impact on local eagle populations. The County's Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Report relies heavily on data collected by WRI in its Biological Resources section, in which it concludes that building more than two square miles of total concentrating solar photovoltaic projects in eagle migration and foraging habitat would have a "less than significant" impact on the birds.

But much of that that data from WRI was collected during a period in which the organization, and its director David Bittner, lacked the necessary permits to study, trap, and otherwise harass eagles. Bittner was convicted of violating federal wildlife protection law in August 2013, after at least three years of working an energy developers' wildlife consultant without the necessary permits, using methods strongly questioned by other biologists. But East County Magazine reports that San Diego County has no plans to tell Soitec to redo its application with data obtained legally.

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The four sites in Soitec's plan are Tierra Del Sol (420 acres), Rugged (765 acres), LanEast (233 acres), and LanWest (55 acres). All four sites would be in Boulevard. The facilities would incorporate a total of 7,409 concentrating PV arrays, each four stories tall and 45 feet wide with Fresnel lenses focusing sunlight on solar cells. All told, the Soitec projects would generate a maximum of just under 170 megawatts.

The projects would also convert important eagle habitat south of Anza Borrego Desert State Park to industrial use, further constricting a wildlife connectivity corridor between the San Diego coast and the desert interior.

In early 2013, after months of investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Attorney filed charges against David Bittner for violations of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Bittner pled guilty to those charges in May and was sentenced in August to three years probation and a $7,500 fine, as well as being ordered to turn over years' worth of eagle data he'd collected to USFWS.

ReWire is working to find out whether Bittner has begun to turn that data over as ordered. The data included radiotelemetry on eagles Bittner illegally caught and fitted with transmitters. The U.S. Attorney's sentencing memorandum in the case described other biologists' criticisms of Bittner's methods:

Bittner banded the bird, and fit it with patagial tags, a backpack mounted satellite transmitter, and a second radio transmitter attached to its wing. Persons observing the release of the bird reported that it appeared to have difficulty flying. Bittner noted that the bird was found dead about two months later, apparently the victim of a wind turbine...

[E]agle experts contacted by FWS stated that they were unaware of any scientific reason to apply more than one device to a single bird. The FWS Raptor Coordinator expressed concern over the mortality rate associated with the eagles to which Bittner had attached telemetry devices. In a presentation given by Bittner in the fall of 2011, it was stated by several persons present that Bittner reported a nine month mortality rate of approximately 90 percent for birds mounted with transmitters, when they would expect to see a survivorship rate of approximately 85 percent. Mortality records provided by Bittner to date indicate a 20 percent mortality rate for the eagles banded during the period when the federal permit was not valid.

If Bittner was in the habit of attaching transmitters to eagles that impeded their movement, that would obviously taint subsequent telemetry data, calling the conclusions of Soitec's Draft EIR into question. And yet, reports Sharon Penny at East County Magazine, when activist Kelly Fuller of Protect Our Communities Foundation asked at a January 2 hearing on the Draft EIR whether the the San Diego County Planning and Development Services planned to demand better, less illegal eagle data, the planning agency's Mindy Fogg replied in a remarkably passive fashion:

When Fuller asked the County representatives if they are basing impacts to Golden Eagles on any other data, Fogg stated that they are only using the Bittner data right now, but are open to any other reports that would be available.

In addition to Soitec, Bittner and WRI are said to have conducted eagle surveys for Sempra Energy's Sierra Juarez wind project, the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, and the Tule Wind project near Boulevard. WRI's income from work conducted without permits is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $600,000.

For the record: A previous version of the previous paragraph implied that Bittner may have conducted eagle research for the Ocotillo Express Wind project. ReWire has since learned that Bittner was not involved in that project.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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