Wind Project Partly Halted as Forensics Dogs Hunt Human Remains

A Native cultural site near the Ocotillo Express Wind project | Chris Clarke photo

The builder of the controversial Ocotillo Express Wind Project has temporarily halted construction surrounding three of the project's 112 planned wind turbine towers after forensics dogs identified possible ancient Native cremation sites in the area.

Pattern Energy, which is building the 12,400-acre project at the west edge of Imperial County adjacent to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is the subject of three current lawsuits opposing the project on environmental and cultural grounds.

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According to Alejandro Davila's report in the Imperial Valley Press, Pattern agreed on Tuesday to suspend construction activity on part of the development after dogs specially trained to detect ancient human remains signaled that they had found a number of potential cremation sites.

The dogs have been on site since last week with their handlers from the Institute for Canine Forensics who have been hired by a consortium of local Native tribes to detect suspected ancient cultural sites, which abound in the vicinity of the project. The BLM is monitoring the dogs and handlers, and accepts a cremation site "hit" as confirmed if two dogs signal it. By the end of the day Tuesday 32 confirmed sites had been found.

The Interior Department green-lighted the 315-megawatt project on May 11. Three days later the Quechan Tribe, which had opposed the project from the outset, filed suit in federal court seeking to halt what it termed the desecration of lands the Quechan consider sacred, as well as charging that Pattern, the BLM, and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors had failed to abide by state and federal environmental laws. On May 23 the Quechan's request for a temporary injunction halting construction on the project was denied. Two additional lawsuits were filed against the project by environmental and neighborhood groups in the weeks that followed.

The Quechan also filed suit against the nearly adjacent Imperial Solar Two project, which was also rich in cultural sites. That project faltered when its owner, Tessera, went out of business in early 2011. Both it and Ocotillo Express were spurred by the controversial Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, completed in June, which was proposed to bring renewable energy from Imperial County and Northern Baja California to urban markets on the coast.

If the potential cremation sites within the Ocotillo Express Wind project boundary prove to be authentic, then the tribes will need to decide whether to seek formal protection for them. Local Native people have traditionally been reluctant to publicize even the approximate locations of their cultural sites due to concern over potential looting and vandalism.

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