A federal judge on Friday basically told the company that has been seeking to build a wind generation farm east of Searchlight and the federal land agencies trying to accommodate the project to start over and fix the flawed environmental analysis or abandon the project.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du granted the plaintiffs’ request that Interior Department’s Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the Biological Opinion be vacated because they fail to adequately address concerns about impacts on bald eagles, golden eagles, desert tortoises and migrating bats, but she refused to grant a permanent injunction.
Searchlight Wind, now a division of Apex Clean Energy, has been trying for at least seven years to gain government approval to place wind turbines on 19,000 acres of federal land — at the paltry price of $118 an acre — near Searchlight. The $300 million proposal was to erect 87 industrial-scale wind turbines that would be more than 400 feet tall and generate 200 megawatts of power.
In her February order ordering Interior and Searchlight Wind review the project’s environmental impact, Judge Du pointed out the initial data used by the Bureau of Land Management found there were only three golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed turbines. Subsequent surveys actually found 19 probable or confirmed golden eagle nests within five miles of the site, the judge wrote.
The BLM’s original study relied on data from Idaho. “In December 2012, however, researchers published a study addressing golden eagle home ranges and foraging distances in the Mojave Desert,” Judge Du writes. “The study shows larger home range sizes and foraging distances than those reported in the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement). Taken together, this new information is sufficient to show significant environmental effects that Federal Defendants should consider in an SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement).”
Du also told the BLM to re-evaluate its conclusions about the impact of the project on desert tortoises, especially the effects of blasting and noises of the turbines during operation.
In a press release at that time the conservation groups who filed the federal suit to block the project stated that a survey actually found 28 golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site and that a new study shows golden eagles in the Mojave Desert travel nearly 10 times as far from their nests to forage as previously thought.
The plaintiffs include Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, Basin and Range Watch and individuals Judy Bundorf, Ellen Ross and Ronald Van Fleet Sr.
The original suit accused the Interior Department of acting in “a manner that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”
So far as I can find, the project has yet to find a buyer for the electricity the project proposes to produce. Without a contracted buyer it is questionable whether the company will find it practical to continue to sink money into a project that might never get approved due to the environmental hurdles.
But the government has 60 days to appeal, though there would be no point if Apex doesn’t have the wherewithal. Also the wind production tax credit expired at the end of 2014 and Congress has yet to extend it.
Judy Bundorf, the lead plaintiff in the case, reacted by saying:
I’m thrilled that the people who live in and around Searchlight won’t have to deal with the impact of such a huge construction project and the noise and flashing lights 24/7 for 25 or 30 years after the project is built.
Equally important, the untouched desert and variety of desert wildlife, including birds, mammals, and reptiles, not to mention Joshua tree forests, deserve to be protected.
Further, the proximity of the proposed wind project to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Spirit Mountain, and numerous wilderness areas makes it unsuitable for large-scale industrial development of any kind.
Du’s Friday ruling: 13-616 Order Granting Vacatur 10-30-15
Du’s February ruling: Opinion_on_Summary_Judgment_2-3-15