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Tribes Sue Over Large Solar Project In Riverside County

Native activists and supporters demonstrate against utility-scale desert solar in 2011 | Photo: Courtesy Basin and Range Watch

Here's another chapter in the long and complicated story of the Blythe Solar Power Project: a group of Native tribes is hauling the Interior Department to court over the project, claiming Interior isn't paying enough attention to the site's cultural significance.

In the complaint, filed last Thursday in the U.S District Court in Riverside, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, claim that the Modified Blythe Solar Power Project "will cause CRIT, its government, and its members irreparable harm" by destroying or threatening ancient trails, petroglyphs, artifacts, and other cultural resources.

The 485-megawatt photovoltaic power plant was approved in its present form by the Bureau of Land Management in August. In its complaint, CRIT says the agency did not adequately consult with Native tribes over the effect on cultural resources of the 4,000-acre project.

The Modified Blythe Solar Power Project is so-called because owner NextEra Energy Resources changed the design of the project when the company bought it in 2013 from the German firm Solar Millennium. The plant as originally designed would have occupied more than 7,000 acres of alluvial fan desert pavement west of the Blythe. The project, which Solar Millennium would have built using parabolic trough solar thermal technology, would have had had a generating capacity of 1,000 megawatts.

When the bottom fell out of the solar thermal market in the early part of this decade as photovoltaic panels became radically cheaper, Solar Millennium went out of business, selling off a number of its projects to other developers in a bankruptcy fire sale. NextEra bought the Blythe Solar Power Project and modified it to use that more cost-effective photovoltaic technology rather than solar thermal, and reduced the project's size -- likely in part due to vociferous public criticism of the project's potential effect on cultural resources.

Nonetheless, CRIT suggests that BLM's archaeological assessment of the Modified Blythe project is inadequate. CRIT claims that the agency omitted information on historic trails, artifacts, and other resources that have come to light since the BLM first approved the original project in 2010. According to CRIT, BLM even fails to list cultural resources identified by the California Energy Commission in its separate review of the project.

This is a bit of a hot button issue for CRIT; the Tribes always take their cultural heritage seriously, but they've also been down this road with BLM and NextEra before, in the next valley west of Blythe over NextEra's Genesis Solar Power Project. The complaint sums up the events at Genesis:

When Genesis Solar LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, LLC, began construction of the Genesis Solar Energy Project ("Genesis Project"), large quantities of prehistoric artifacts were unearthed, including hundreds of manos and metates (grinding tools used by the ancestors of CRIT's Mohave members), a stone pendant, and a possible cremation site. The mass disturbance of these resources caused CRIT's members substantial emotional, spiritual, and even physical pain.

NextEra and BLM had agreed to notify CRIT of any cultural resources discoveries on the Genesis site within 24 hours, but CRIT says the tribes were kept in the dark about those discoveries for two weeks.

The Tribes also say they feel the BLM didn't live up to its legal responsibility to engage in "nation-to-nation" consultation with the tribes as required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. In the words of the complaint:

There had been only two meetings between CRIT and BLM where the project had been listed for discussion. These meetings were general, informational meetings that covered the Project together with at least ten other proposed utility-scale solar projects. At one of these meetings, the Project was never even discussed. CRIT repeatedly requested that BLM conduct true government-to-government consultation with the Tribes before approving the Project, but such consultation never occurred.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes is the political entity that represents about 9,200 Native residents of the Colorado River Indian Reservation in California and Arizona. The reservation hosts people of Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo ancestry. CRIT has taken an active role in many solar project environmental assessments since Genesis, and has intervened in California Energy Commission proceedings on proposed solar projects in its cultural area.

We'll be following up on this lawsuit with a more in-depth story in the days to come.

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