Dust Pollution Halts Solar Project

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The sign from New Mexico could come in handy in the Antelope Valley | Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Solar advocates like to joke that while oil spills ruin the environment, solar spills are otherwise known as "nice days." But a "spill" from a solar project being built in the desert portion of Los Angeles County may actually have caused significant problems, including personal injury. Construction at the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch (AVSR) near Lancaster has been halted by county officials in the wake of powerful dust storms that caused multi-car pileups in April.

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The partly completed project is being built by First Solar for the firm Exelon on former agricultural land along Route 138 west of Lancaster.

AVSR has been the focus of considerable opposition in the neighborhood, even being vandalized last year after crews inadvertently started a wildfire on the site. The source of a number of fugitive dust complaints from neighbors with resulting air quality citations from officials, the project was hit hard by high winds that swept across the state in early April.

Dust off a cleared but undeveloped section of the AVSR project is thought to have contributed to near-zero visibility during a windstorm April 8. A plume of dust downwind of the project is alleged to have contributed to a 16-car pileup on the Antelope Valley Freeway, with injuries resulting.

As local resident Robert Kerekes, president of the Original Antelope Acres Town Council, told the Antelope Valley Press "Solar companies pulled out all the vegetation. It looks like a river, like a thick river. It's blowing like crazy. I never saw it that bad before."

According to Herman K. Trabish at Greentech Media, incidents on April 5 and 8 spurred Notices of Violations from the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District (AVAQMD) over violations of federal ambient air quality standards for particulate matter. AVAQMD operations manager Bret Banks told Trabish that there were "a myriad of things [First Solar] could have done that we didn't think they were doing to prevent the violations."

"We told them it is time to stop experimenting," added Norm Hickling, aide to L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich. "We need best practice standards."

AVSR certainly isn't the only source of fugitive dust in the Antelope Valley: a century of agriculture (many fields now abandoned) as well as off-road vehicle use and abortive suburban development also contribute to the issue of unprotected soil surfaces. But Trabish reports that Hickling singled out First Solar, in a statement made to the town council, for failure to address the dust problem off the AVSR site. "They have been told it is time to use things to control dust that have worked elsewhere in the valley," Hickling said.

AVSR, which uses First Solar's thin-film photovoltaic panels, will top out at 230 megawatts maximum capacity when it's completed. A portion of the plant is already delivering power to Southern California Edison.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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