The Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation is no longer the only voice in legal protest against a proposed wind energy project on the delicate desert landscape surrounding Coyote Mountain in southern California.
The Desert Protective Council (DPC) and the Laborers’ International Union of North American, Local Union No. 1184 (LIUNA) and two of its members have filed a joint lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to stop the construction of the Ocotillo Express Wind Facility – a massive project of 112 turbines, each standing 450 feet tall, on more than 10,150 acres of public land in the Ocotillo Desert south of San Diego, including a 12-acre concrete batch plant lay down area, a 3.4-acre site for an operations and maintenance facility, a 2.1-acre substation, a 23.5-acre interconnection switchyard, up to three permanent meteorological towers, and around 42 miles of new access roads.
Coyote Mountain and the Ocotillo Desert around it are sacred to the Quechan, Kumeyaay and Cocopah Nations.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the Record of Decision (ROD) – the approval – for the Ocotillo Express Wind Facility on May 11 and grading work on the site began almost immediately even though a required Notice to Proceed had not yet been issued.
The DPC and LIUNA lawsuit filed their lawsuit May 25 following a similar action filed in the same court by the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation on May 14. The DPC and LIUNA lawsuit names as plaintiffs the Interior Department and Salazar; the Bureau of Land Management, its director Robert Abbey and other officials; the County of Imperial and its board of supervisors; Ocotillo Express LLC, a subsidiary of Pattern Energy Group; and Pattern Energy Group. The lawsuit claims the approvals by Interior and Imperial County violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs also challenge project approvals by the County of Imperial including the Final Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report and other permits and findings. They allege that the approvals violate the California Desert Conservation Area (“CDCA”) Plan of 1980, the California Environmental Quality Act, the Public Resources Code, the California Endangered Species Act, California Fish and Game Code, and other statutes and regulations. The lawsuit says the land was protected by the CDCA until the Bureau of Land Management approved the project and that the CDCA was amended only to allow for the wind project even though the BLM has identified the project site as “high value lands for numerous protected species,” including golden eagle, burrowing owl, Peninsula bighorn sheep, migratory birds, bats, and other species. “In evaluating the project’s impact on these and other protected species, BLM ignored relevant scientific information, failed to assess the baseline from which to measure impacts, failed to fully and accurately assess some impacts and overlooked others, and failed to provide avoidance or mitigation measures sufficient to bring the project into compliance with law.” The lawsuit asks the court to set aside the approvals and stop all ground-disturbing activities until the violations are remedied.
The Desert Protective Council is a 58-year-old nonprofit conservation organization whose mission is “To safeguard for wise and reverent use by this and succeeding generations those desert areas of unique scenic, scientific, historical, spiritual or recreational value and to educate children and adults to a better understanding of the deserts.”
The Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 1184, has around 4,000 members in the area of the proposed Ocotillo Wind Express Facility and “several distinct legally cognizable interests in this project,” the court document says. Union members have an “ownership interest in public resources” and regularly enjoy the “peaceful repose and diversity and rarity of species of plants and animals” at the proposed project site which listed as a California Desert Conservation Area. The union also advocates for environmental protection, the court document says.
Two union members – Hector Casillas and John Norton – live near the project and would be directly impacted by its construction, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning, the lawsuit says. The project has the potential to negatively impact union members’ electricity bills, jobs, and health. “LIUNA members may be exposed to constructions hazards such as Valley Fever and other construction-related risks that have not been adequately analyzed or mitigated,” the lawsuit says.
Meanwhile, Quechan Tribe elders led a group of around 70 tribal citizens to occupy the landscape at the proposed project site beginning on the night of May 30. Elders performed ceremonies for the spirits of their ancestors at one of the many cremation sites on the sacred land that has been used since time immemorial by the tribe’s ancestors.
“The Quechan Tribe has been holding a vigil for the last five days on the site of the Ocotillo Wind project near some recently discovered cremation areas,” Terry Weiner, Desert Protective Council’s coordinator for Imperial County projects and conservation, told Indian Country Today Media Network on May 30. “There has been singing and telling of the creation story and just being together in this beautiful desert.”
Some of the members are expected to stay on the site, said John Bathke, Quechan’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO). “For different reasons some of the people refer to this area as the Valley of the Dead in part because there’s a lot of these funerary sites out here. We’ve warned BLM about the cremation and funerary sites but that doesn’t seem to faze them at all.” Bathke said the official survey was inadequate. “It was incomplete and a lot of people have criticized it. Actually, it was so bad that the tribal governments forced the company that did the survey to rewrite its report to fix a lot of its inadequacies, but the survey they did was such shoddy work that they wouldn’t catch everything out here.”
Weiner said she expects increasing opposition to the project. “There is widespread opposition and there is a grassroots effort based in the little town of Ocotillo to organize against this.” She invited “all people opposed to the project” to attend the Quechan Tribe’s vigil “and plan the next steps in fighting this project.”