Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Embattled Ivanpah Solar Plant Endangers Tortoises, Gets Brown's Approval

By Nate Seltenrich
Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Oakland developer BrightSource has had a rough go of it in the California desert, but not rough enough to stop its plans of building one of the world's largest solar plants. As we reported in December, the company decided to site its 5.6-square-mile Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in an area of the Mojave Desert relatively rich with ecological resources. The plant took three years to permit, in part because of perceived environmental impacts, and work has hardly been a breeze since ground was broken in October. But last week, Governor Jerry Brown gave it a stamp of approval that may well send it on its way.

The latest trouble began in April, when federal officials ordered BrightSource to halt construction on the plant after project biologists reported finding more tortoises on the site than originally anticipated. The company’s permits allowed it to move only 38 tortoises and kill only three a year during its three-year construction phase. When it surfaced that the company was set to exceed those limits, the Bureau of Land Management, on whose land the plant is being built, stopped construction and commissioned a new biological assessment.

The results were shocking: Ninety percent of all non-adult tortoises, or as many as 547 individuals per year, would likely be killed during construction. The rest of them, plus 160 resident adults, would be manually transported off-site. In sum, more than 3,000 desert tortoises would be disturbed, while 3,344 acres of desert tortoise habitat would be permanently destroyed.

But that wasn't the end. Based on these findings, the US Fish and Wildlife Service negotiated new conditions with BrightSource in June that would allow construction to resume. The revised Biological Opinion includes new stipulations for translocating tortoises, new requirements for protecting them from predators, and increased monitoring and fencing.

Environmentalists including the East Bay’s Desert Survivors have continued to oppose the project, including requesting an injunction in federal court. However, the Bay Citizen reports that last week Governor Brown’s office filed a legal brief asking a federal judge to dismiss the request. “California has a strong and demonstrated interest in increasing its renewable energy and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions," he said in a statement issued Friday. But at what cost?

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