BLM Clamps Down on Public Comment at Renewable Energy Meetings

First Solar Stateline Scoping Meeting | Photo courtesy Basin and Range Watch

Faced with a storm of protest over the Interior Department's push for renewable energy development on public land in California, the Bureau of Land Management has taken a novel approach to managing public comment on controversial projects: don't allow any.

That was the conclusion of members of the public who attended a pair of public meetings in California in the last week. In Ocotillo on August 25, the project at issue was the Ocotillo Express wind project, which would site 155 wind turbines on 12,500 acres of mainly public land. The 465-megawatt project has stoked controversy in western Imperial County over its likely impact on bird and bat populations, as well as on the unparalleled viewscape of the Peninsular Ranges and the health of nearby residents.

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But little of that controversy was expressed at the August 25 meeting. According to coverage in the Imperial Valley Press, locals in attendance found that their opportunity to comment on the project was severely limited. There was no public comment period scheduled. In order to comment on the project, attendees had to write their thoughts on a few lines on one side of a pre-printed letter-sized form, which would likely have allowed most people only about 75 words of comment. (The form did provide an email address for those who wished to make longer comments.)

Though the meeting largely proceeded as planned, there was disgruntlement among those in attendance over the apparent squelching of spoken public input. As local environmental activist Donna Tisdale told the Imperial Valley Press,

It's like they're trying to suppress public comment. People want to speak. They want to ask questions.

The scene replayed more fractiously a few days later on August 31, at the Primm Valley Golf Club in Ivanpah Valley, a few miles from the Nevada line and 300 miles north of Ocotillo. The occasion was a scoping meeting to gather public input on the First Solar Stateline Solar Farm, a 300-megawatt photovoltaic facility on about 2,000 acres of public land adjacent to the controversial Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station. The Ivanpah Valley is remote from most places in California: aside from Las Vegas, the nearest town of any size, Barstow, is across 113 miles of desert. People traveled to the meeting from as far away as Long Beach, CA and Beatty, NV to offer their input at this meeting, but were told that as was the case in Ocotillo, there would be no opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

A scoping meeting is generally held as part of the scoping process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal law that regulates environmental review of potentially destructive projects. Under NEPA, the scoping process is intended to identify potential issues or alternative plans to be addressed in subsequent Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements. The whole point of a scoping meeting is to assess the wide range of potential issues a project may involve. While there is no legal requirement that an agency include public-hearing-style comment periods in a scoping meeting, such open comment meetings are generally the most efficient way of gauging public opinion on an issue, especially when the issue is controversial.

And if First Solar Stateline is a controversial project, the BLM's choice of meeting formats proved even more controversial at the Primm Golf Club. There was widespread grumbling among attendees before the meeting even started. One BLM staffer told me somewhat defensively that there was a range of formats allowable for scoping meetings. Attendees looked askance at the unusual police presence, with both BLM rangers and San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies thick on the ground, armed with sidearms and Tasers. After a short presentation by First Solar's project lead Mike Argentine, Jeff Childers, a BLM staffer from the California Desert District office in Moreno Valley, confirmed to the roomful of people -- many of whom were attempting to ask questions -- that public comment would not be allowed other than in writing.

The room erupted despite the heavy police presence. Kevin Emmerich from the group Basin and Range Watch stood and announced his group's alternative proposal, an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) for the Ivanpah Valley. Others loudly confronted Childers on the lack of clarity in BLM communications about the meeting, the inadequacy of avenues for public comment at the meeting, and the trouble and expense to which many attendees had gone in order to attend the meeting, only to find that the BLM didn't want to hear more than about 75 words of their input, in writing.

Childers alleged that the BLM's intent was to allow more accurate responses to the public's input, but then abandoned that line of reasoning within a few sentences, suggesting that another meeting might be scheduled for verbal comments from the public. This didn't go over well among those who had traveled long distances. The meeting eventually dissolved into a few knots of people having animated discussions.

Though I did attempt to talk to BLM staff to flesh out their reasons for the shift in meeting format, they did not return my phone calls by press time.

It should be said that the scoping process is not the only opportunity for members of the public to comment on projects proposed for public lands. The Environmental Assessment and EIS processes also afford venues for comment. Still, the scoping process is an important chance for public opinion to shape a project in its very early stages. Limiting public comment to a few handwritten sentences (or to potentially longer emailed comments) unnecessarily restricts the democratic rights of people whose disabilities may interfere with writing by hand or typing, people whose written English proficiency is inadequate but who could offer substantive comments in spoken form, and people without access to the internet. In the California Desert those last two groups are heavily Latino and Native, raising troubling implications of racial discrimination.

What's more, though a public hearing style meeting is prone to people speaking long, grandstanding, and otherwise trying the patience of meeting facilitators, it's an effective way for interested people to hear the range of opinion and sentiment among others in attendance. The result is a very efficient sharing of ideas -- something made impossible if all comments are submitted in writing.

Over the last two years, desert protection activists have heard repeatedly from nervous National Park staff, BLM rangers, and other Interior Department agency staff that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has laid down the law. No Interior employee will act in opposition to public lands renewable energy development, even if opposing said development could be construed as within the person's job description: a Park Service analyst objecting to development on the boundary of a National Park, for instance.

Attendees at a BLM meeting held to discuss First Solar Stateline earlier this year were informed by staff from the Needles BLM office that an urban rooftop solar alternative had been declared "off the table" by higher-ups in Washington, DC -- an attempt, possibly illegal, to restrict the allowable content of public feedback. Clamping down on the age-old American tradition of speaking your piece at a public meeting seems cut from the same cloth as these previous initiatives.

Will this latest move to curtail public input on public lands projects become the California BLM's new way of holding scoping meetings? It's hard to say. It depends on how much push-back they get from members of the public, and perhaps from attorneys concerned over the racial or disability discrimination aspects of the new policy. In the meantime, scoping meetings have been scheduled in September for discussion of the McCoy Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, the Tylerhorse Wind Project in Kern County, and the management plan for the Amargosa River. You can exercise your rights as a US resident by attending to voice your concerns. Or trying to voice them, anyway.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He's also a co-founder of Solar Done Right and thus doesn't even try to pretend to be an impartial observer of solar development on California's wildlands. He lives in Palm Springs.

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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This article illustrates exactly how crooked this whole industry is. They did this to me and would not let me say what I wanted at a meeting even though I had proof that their Environmental documents were bogus. Face it, Democracy is in the toilet. What we now have is Capitalism with investors calling the shots in Washington. The wind industry was built on a foundation of fraud, hiding the bodies of protected species slaughtered by the wind turbines. It is still continuing today with the help of the USFWS and their ridiculous "voluntary guidelines" or suggestions for the industry.

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HI Chris: I suspect I am the Long Beach traveler of which you spoke, and yeah, you bet that I was pissed off for having traveled that far to voice my concerns only to have them overshadowed by the BLM's overly obvious submission to big business/industry. Thank goodness that I emerged at sunset from that sour firearm-patrolled environment and drove into the sweet light and refuge of the New York Mountains....


If we are left with no opportunity at these meetings to publicly voice of our concerns, we'll just have to keep attending and disrupting them. This crap will not stand on OUR public lands. A "scoping meeting" should be a place where all interested parties voice their proposals and concerns: BLM, we the public landholders, and the businesses that propose to forever alter our public lands and upset wildlife for private profit. The meeting in Primm went quite differently, with the First Solar project appearing and spoken of as a done deal and we the people silenced. Is this how democracy works?


Salazar's fast-tracking of energy development and laying down of the law should never arise fear in public employees, and NPS, BLM, and DOI employees should never forget the reasons they chose their careers. They are beholden first to the places they are entrusted to and paid to preserve and protect, and should employ the resources of the PEER group (http://www.peer.org/about/index.php) to deflect the scare tactics of Salazar or anyone else.


Chris, will you be going to the McCoy meeting?

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Some of the new propaganda coming out from the wind industry is about transmission lines and communication towers. Despite what is being written, transmission lines and towers are not nearly in the same league as wind turbines.
Transmission lines are a threat but a rare collision is not enough to exterminate a species. Can stationary communication towers kill 4-5 million and deaths by wind turbines only 33,000 as the USFWS claims? These are statistics for idiots and to me represents fraud.
Propeller style wind turbines on the other hand are the killers and they can exterminate a species. If one were to think about all this logically the truth becomes painfully obvious. If you were a California Condor, a Golden Eagle or a Whooping Crane would you rather glide into a stationary and even flexible power line or be smashed with a 12 ton wind turbine blade moving at 220 mph? Would you rather run into a rope or structure or be hit by an Indy race car moving at full speed? If a bird hits a transmission line there is a good chance of survival, but when smashed by a turbine blade it is all over. Transmission lines are not killing off the Red kite population in Europe. Their numbers were expanding until the wind turbines moved in. Power lines and towers haven't killed the 2000-2500 Golden Eagles that have perished at Altamont Pass. Power lines and towers also haven't killed the 22 endangered Tasmanian Wedge tailed Eagles reported killed by wind turbines recently.

In fact power lines and towers have not killed the hundreds of thousands of unreported protected species killed at wind farms across America.
Despite industry propaganda, cats, windows, cars etc. kill almost no rare and endangered species such as Condors, Whooping Cranes, Red Kites, Tasmanian Wedge Tailed Eagles, and Egyptian Vultures. The fact is, once these turbines are put into their foraging and nesting habitats they become the primary killers of these species. The reality is that no bird or bat is safe from these turbines. The public rarely hears about it because of bogus studies, wind farm security and carefully written contracts with gag orders. Think about it. Why would an honest industry ever need gag orders? Why would they rig Environmental Impact Documents? Why is this industry allowed to hide the carcasses of protected species and why does the USFWS allow this lack of regulation?

Recent studies from Altamont Pass would have us believing that the new larger wind turbines are much safer than the early turbines used at Altamont pass. Much has been written about the benefits of repowering Altamont Pass with the new supposedly safer turbines. After reading the June 6 Wind Energy story published in the LA Times I began looking into the research behind the statement made by Dr. Shawn Smallwood ........."The neighboring Buena Vista Wind Energy Project recently replaced 179 aging wind turbines with 38 newer and more powerful 1-megawatt turbines. That repowering effort has reduced fatality rates by 79% for all raptor species and 50% for golden eagles, according to a study by Shawn Smallwood, an expert on raptor ecology in wind farms".

I found a major flaw in the research The reason the studies are flawed or unreliable is that all the search areas looking for blade strike victims are statistically inconsistent with the turbine sizes. I will illustrate the most extreme example of this inconsistency. The old 40KW turbines at Altamont have a stated historical search areas of a 50 meter radius yet the new and much larger 1 Mw turbines have a search area radius of only 75 meters. The comparison between these turbines reveals that the new 1 MW turbines have a 20.65 times greater rotor sweep(Kill Zone), yet their search areas were only increased by 2.2 times. By my calculations the search areas should have been many times larger. There is good reason bird mortality went down per KW of power production in these studies, the search areas are proportionally much smaller.

There is even more about this flawed new wind industry research that I can add. I will reveal it at a later date.



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Chris, will you be going to the McCoy meeting?

It is very likely.

Wiegand, that is a lot of fascinating information. I'll be looking at it more closely.