Group Sues to Block New Desert Solar Projects Over Threat to Tortoises

Adult desert tortoise with four juveniles | Photo: Lake Mead NRA/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The group Defenders of Wildlife filed suit today to overturn the Interior Department's approval of two large solar projects planned for the Ivanpah Valley in the Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas, saying that the projects were approved without enough consideration of the damage they'd cause the federally Threatened desert tortoise.

The Stateline and Silver State South solar projects, which would straddle the California-Nevada line not far from the Mojave National Preserve, were approved by the Interior Department on February 19. Defenders of Wildlife had previously said it would sue Interior if the projects were approved.

According to the language in Defenders' complaint, the two projects "collectively threaten the survival of the tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley, which, in turn, poses grave risks to the survival and recovery of the entire Mojave population of the Tortoise."

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The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The Tempe-based firm First Solar would build each of the projects with its proprietary cadmium telluride photovoltaic panels. First Solar would operate Stateline, but it sold Silver State South to the Florida firm NextEra Energy Resources in October 2013. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the two projects would displace or kill as many as 2,115 desert tortoises, many of them hatchlings and juveniles.

Defenders' suit charges that the Interior Department failed to address the cumulative impacts to the tortoise of building both of the plants, with each project's Environmental Impact Statement omitting consideration of the other plant's impact. The group further points out that USFWS issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) approving Silver State South despite the agency's earlier urging that the plant not be built because it would effectively seal off a critical genetic connectivity corridor for the tortoise.

The group is asking the court to vacate the projects' approval by the Interior Department and send agencies back to square one in the Environmental IMpact Statement process.

The Stateline project would convert 1,651 acres of tortoise habitat in California, near the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS). Silver State South would occupy 2,388 acres on the Nevada side of the valley. Together with the nearly 4,000-acre ISEGS and the already existing Silver State North project, Stateline and Silver State South would create a band of industrial development across one of the most important migration and connectivity corridors for the desert tortoise, potentially affecting the species' survival into a warming 22nd Century.

"The combined Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects are examples of the kind of renewable energy development that does not take wildlife into account, or properly plan to have the least impact possible on imperiled wildlife," wrote Defenders' Courtney Sexton in a Thursday blog post. "They are a body blow to the threatened tortoises and habitat in the region. The result will essentially be an impenetrable wall of development cutting across the heart of the Ivanpah Valley."

"We don't have to choose between protecting imperiled wildlife and encouraging clean, renewable energy," added Defenders' California director Kim Delfino. "All we have to do is plan smart from the start and move proposed projects to low-conflict areas, something the BLM and the Service failed to do when they approved the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley."

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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