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Native Group: Feds Not Following Consulting Rules on Blythe Solar Project

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Figueroa on the site of the proposed Blythe Solar project in 2011 | Photo: Basin and Range Watch/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A group concerned with the preservation of Native sacred sites in the Colorado River valley has charged that the federal government isn't reaching out to local Native people as the law requires on discussions of local desert solar projects.

In a formal comment letter sent to the Bureau of Land Management, Alfredo Figueroa, founder of the Blythe-based group La Cuna De Aztlán Sacred Sites Protection Circle, charged that the agency had failed to notify local tribes of a July meeting in Blythe to discuss the Blythe and McCoy solar projects, both of which are proposed by NextEra energy for a desert plain west of the Colorado River. That plain is the site of a number of geoglyphs held as sacred by La Cuna De Aztlan and other local Native groups. Some of those geoglyphs have already been damaged by previous solar construction.

Figueroa provided ReWire with a copy of his letter, which details not only the problems he alleges with agency communication but provides a glimpse into the complex cosmogony through which his group interprets the geoglyphs' meaning and importance.

The Blythe and McCoy projects would together cover as much as 8,500 acres of the Colorado River plain in Riverside County at the eastern foot of the McCoy Mountains, generating a maximum of 1,235 megawatts of photovoltaic electricity if McCoy's built out to its maximum footprint.

In the letter, sent Tuesday August 20, Figueroa says that it was only by fluke that he and his colleagues learned of the August 23 meeting in Blythe.

We were notified of this meeting by chance when we were attending another meeting of the California Energy Commission concerning the amended Palen Project on July 22, 2013 in Palm Desert, California. If Mr. McMenimen had not asked me if I was attending the meeting the following day, I would have never known about the meeting.... None of the group that was there had received any notice and Mr. McMenimen told us he had sent the notice by express mail. The notice of the meeting caught us all off guard. We were completely unaware of the situation prior to our conversation with Mr. McMenimen.

Figueroa relates that on showing up at the meeting, he got the impression that the tribes weren't the only members of the public who had been left out of the loop:

The following day, my brother and I went to the BLM meeting at Blythe City Hall. There were not any notices of the meeting placed outside or inside of City Hall nor was there an agenda for this BLM meeting. As far as we could tell, there was no one in attendance taking minutes nor was the meeting being recorded by BLM and there was just one handout which was from Nextera about the proposed modified Blythe Solar Power Project. In reality, we didn't know what the meeting was going to be about.

A quick search of publicly available web records by ReWire failed to turn up any public notice of the meeting, which turned out to be about both the Blythe and McCoy solar projects. That's an unusual step for public meetings, which generally focus on one such project at a time.

In fact, it's unclear to ReWire just what sort of public meeting the July 23 event at Blythe City Hall was intended to be. Both projects already have completed Environmental Impact Statements, so their scoping and public comment meetings under the National Environmental Policy Act are now history. Same goes for the initial consultation meetings under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires that Federal agencies consult formally wiith Native tribes on a government-to-government basis if agency projects could affect areas of historical or religious significance.

Under the terms of the BLM's Record of Decision for the McCoy project, the agency agreed as part of its compliance with Section 106 to consult with local tribes and other Native stakeholders at various points throughout the construuction process, and the July 23 meeting may have been part of such consultation attempts.

We just don't know, and the more troubling fact is that participants in the meeting themselves came away unclear as to the meeting's purpose. When ReWire asked Alfredo Figueroa what the stated purpose of the meeting had been, he apologized for not being able to answer. "There was no written agenda, there were no signs, there was no one transcribing the meeting minutes. I still have no idea what this meeting was supposed to have been about."

ReWire's calls to BLM staff responsible for the meeting had not been returned by press time, so this post necessarily raises more questions than it answers. We'll update as more information becomes available. In the meantime, though, it's worth noting that -- as we have reported here before -- this is not the first time tribes in the Lower Colorado River area have raised questions about the issue of their inclusion in the decision-making process over desert solar installations on culturally significant lands.

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