Desert Solar Projects by Two Oakland Companies Threatened by New Lawsuit

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The road was never smooth on Oakland company BrightSource's three-year journey to permit a 5.5-square-mile solar thermal plant fifty miles southeast of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert. Not only was it the first large-scale solar plant to be ushered through the Bureau of Land Management’s fast-track permitting process, but it was also slated to be the world’s largest — and sited on land many desert conservationists deemed nearly pristine. But when the company received final approval from the federal government and broke ground on the Ivanpah project in October, it seemed the worst was behind them.

Yet out of the woodwork came a new obstacle last week, one that could potentially delay BrightSource's landmark project even further. A Native American cultural protection group called La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle filed suit in U.S. District Court against the BLM and the Department of the Interior for permitting six large-scale solar plants on federal land, including BrightSource’s Ivanpah plant. Also named in the suit is an eleven-square-mile plant called Blythe being developed by fellow Oakland company Solar Millennium. The Blythe plant will assume the title of world’s largest when it’s complete in 2013.

The basis of the suit was the BLM’s alleged failure to consult with the tribes represented by La Cuna de Aztlan during the fast-track permitting process. According to La Cuna advisory committee chairperson Patricia Pinon, the accelerated process resulted in inadequate environmental impact statements and insufficient consultation with the tribes, which claim legal standing. In a statement, La Cuna founder Alfredo Figueroa said the six projects would “grade and develop 23,842 acres of essentially pristine desert lands” through amendments to the California Desert Conservation Area Plan, which is intended to protect “natural, scenic, ecological, and cultural resource values … while ensuring that sensitive values are not significantly diminished."

BrightSource senior director of corporate communications Keely Wachs was unavailable for comment on how the lawsuit might affect the Ivanpah plant. Solar Millennium senior manager of communications Andrea Elliott, meanwhile, stated only that “We are aware of the lawsuit filed by La Cuna de Aztlan against the Department of the Interior. Our legal team is still reviewing the complaint, so we don’t yet have a sense of any potential impacts to the Blythe project.”

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