Did Solar Development Intensify a Dust Storm that Closed an L.A. County Freeway?

A past California desert dust storm | Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahracha/1471894183//Flickr/Creative Commons License

A major dust storm yesterday struck a desert portion of a Los Angeles County freeway causing a number of vehicle collisions injuring at least six people. The incident comes a week after construction on a large, nearby solar energy project reportedly resumed following efforts to control dust blowing off the site.

We should make it clear that there's no solid evidence at present that the dust that enveloped the 14 Freeway, reducing visibility to six feet or less, came off First Solar's construction site for the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch 1 (AVSR1). But the timing of the storm a week after the recommencement of construction attracted our notice here at ReWire.

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Construction on the 230-megawatt photovoltaic project along Avenue D west of Lancaster was halted in April after dust complaints from nearby residents led officials at the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District (AVAQMD) to investigate the project. The AVAQMD issued a formal Notice of Violations on April 5, three days before a previous dust storm closed down the freeway amid widespread multiple-vehicle accidents. The dust problem also attracted negative attention from Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.

But last week, First Solar spokesperson Steve Krum told GreenTechMedia's Herman Trabish that a number of dust control initiatives taken by First Solar had allowed construction to resume. Those measures included paving dirt roadways with gravel and applying a chemical dust suppressant to disturbed soil inside the project footprint.

Tuesday's dust storm was responsible for a number of multiple-vehicle accidents, including one that involved 20 vehicles. Wind gusts topped 60 miles per hour, and this local video shot Tuesday shows the effect on visibility:

In addition to construction of solar facilities, the Antelope Valley's airborne dust also blows off active and fallowed agricultural fields, off-road vehicle-impacted areas, and housing developments. Particulate matter pollution contributes to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, and disturbed and airborne dust is also a vector for Valley Fever, which is increasing in prevalence in the Mojave Desert and among solar plant workers elsewhere in the state.

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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