A federal judge has handed the residents of Searchlight a major victory in their fight to challenge a federal land agency’s attempt to ramrod approval of a massive wind farm by ignoring the law, science and the facts.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du granted the plaintiffs’ request that the Interior Department’s Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the Biological Opinion be vacated because they failed to adequately address concerns about impacts on bald eagles, golden eagles, desert tortoises and migrating bats.
She refused to grant a permanent injunction, and the government has 60 days to appeal.
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 9,000 acres of federal land east of Searchlight. The $300 million proposal is to erect 87 industrial-scale wind turbines that would be more than 400 feet tall and generate 200 megawatts of power.
Basin and Range Watch, one of the plaintiffs in the case, pointed out one of the more damning examples of lax oversight by the BLM uncovered by Judge Du. The BLM Environmental Impact Statement on the eagle population relied on the wind farm developer’s survey, which found only three golden eagle nests in the vicinity of the proposed wind turbines. Yet a 2011 survey by the BLM itself found 28 golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the site, but this was not included in the final BLM review.
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.
The original suit accused the Interior Department of acting in “a manner that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.” The plaintiffs also include Friends of Searchlight Desert and individuals Judy Bundorf, Ellen Ross and Ronald Van Fleet Sr.
Though Judge Du did not address it in this ruling, the plaintiffs also say studies have found property values near wind farms decline by as much as 60 percent, constituting a regulatory taking of private property rights under the Fifth Amendment. Interior, of course, could find no negative impact on property values due to wind farms.
No buyer has yet contracted for the power the wind farm would 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. Also the wind production tax credit expired at the end of 2014 and Congress has yet to extend it.
Plaintiff Bundorf reacted to the ruling 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.”
Basin and Range Watch said the ruling “effectively requires Apex Clean Energy and the agencies to go back to the drawing board if Apex chooses to pursue the project.”
“The high desert surrounding Searchlight supports a high diversity of flora and fauna including rich avian fauna and very old Joshua tree forests. The location’s close proximity to the Colorado River allows it to have a large number of terrestrial and avian species deserving of protection” said Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch. “The Searchlight area is a very scenic region that has a great potential to expand its tourism economy. The area should be managed to maintain open space. There are limitless opportunities for birdwatching, hiking, backcountry 4-wheel driving, wildlife viewing, boating, rock hounding and photography. The Bureau of Land Management has a unique opportunity to manage the area for its scenic, cultural, wildlife and recreational values. Rooftop solar and other distributed generation alternatives should be considered as a more environmentally friendly clean energy alternative.”
Du’s ruling may also offer a ray of hope for the state, counties and businesses suing the Interior Department over land use restrictions intended to protect the greater sage grouse. She is hearing that case, too.
We hope there are more rulings in the near future giving residents more say over what happens in their communities instead of being ignored by federal agencies pushing a green energy agenda.
A version of this editorial appears this past week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.
Du’s ruling: 13-616 Order Granting Vacatur 10-30-15