News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Feds To Investigate Water Bird Deaths at Solar Plants

The government is investigating deaths of water birds, like this Yuma clapper rail, at desert solar facilities. | Photo: USGS | Courtney Conway

The Bureau of Land Management is forming a task force to investigate a spate of unexpected deaths of water birds at remote desert solar facilities, according to a BLM spokesperson. Though the membership and mission of the group are not yet nailed down, Frank McMenimen of the BLM's Palm Springs office says he expects the group will be meeting by next week.

McMenimen made the informal announcement at a Wednesday meeting in Palm Desert organized by the BLM to solicit public comment on the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System.

As ReWire reported in July, a surprising number of dead and injured water birds have been turning up at at least two utility-scale solar projects in the desert portions of Riverside County, including an Endangered Yuma clapper rail. ReWire has since been tracking similar bird injuries, with reports coming in from solar projects across the desert.

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"It was an issue that caught a lot of people by surprise," McMenimen told ReWire after the meeting. "The birds dying grabbed a lot of public attention very quickly, and we obviously have to look into it."

The announcement came during a relatively sparsely attended public comment meeting on the BLM's Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) on the proposed 500-megawatt solar project near the Palen Mountains, as part of the public comment required under the National Environmental Policy Act. McMenimen announced the group's formation in response to comments by biologist Pat Flanagan, who expressed strong concern in the wake of the waterbird deaths that the project's more than 180,000 mirrored heliostats would add yet another illusory lake to the arid desert.

Unlike other such meetings over contentious projects, only three other members of the public made comments at the Palm Desert meeting. Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association charged that the project's proponents had minimized the project's impact on nearby wilderness areas within Joshua Tree National Park by focusing on those areas' lack of visitor amenities.

"The NPCA is very concerned about the effect the Palen project will have on wildlife and on the park's visual resources," Shteir told ReWire.

Also offering comments were Patricia Figueroa of La Cuna De Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, who said that the project would constitute one more blow to the region's rich cultural history, and Paul Smith, owner of the 29 Palms Inn, who spoke of the effect he feared additional industrial development would have on the region's thriving tourism-based economy.

A side note: In what seems to ReWire to be an example of a new trend in such meetings, the BLM offered no formal transcription of verbal comments made at the Palm Desert meeting. Members of the public who made comments were told that those comments would not be entered into the formal record unless written versions were also submitted.

There would seem to be no legal requirement that spoken comments at such hearings be transcribed. But failure to do so does bear civil rights implications. There are any number of reasons that a person capable of making substantive spoken comments might not be able to provide written comments: factors from poverty and consequent lack of access to computer technology to disability to the difference between spoken fluency in a second language and literacy in that same language come into play.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, all substantive public comments on a draft EIS must be addressed in the final document, which failure to record spoken comments would seem to work against. Perhaps more importantly, having delivered comments on a proposed project is one way to gain standing to sue to block that project. The lack of a formal transcription or recording for formal hearings is a trend that ReWire finds disturbing.

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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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