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Palen project back on track to threaten Joshua Tree National Park


Photo courtesy of BLM.

EDF Renewable Energy has amended and is seeking approval from the BLM for construction of the long embattled Palen Solar Project. The new incarnation of Palen is as a 500 MW solar photovoltaic (PV) power project located on 4,221 acres of public lands in Riverside County, about 10 miles east of Desert Center, north of Interstate 10, just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.


The BLM announced today, May 17, 2018, the availability of the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Impact Report, as well as the California Desert Conservation Area Land Use Plan Amendment for the proposed solar project. The BLM has indicated it plans to approve the project. The BLM's NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) website notes, "Construction is proposed to roughly span 30 months from issuance of a Notice to Proceed (NTP), expected to occur sometime in 2018. Commercial operation may be phased between 2018 and 2021."


According to the BLM, "The Palen Solar Project is consistent with the Trump Administration’s priority of pursuing energy independence, while improving infrastructure and creating jobs in local economies. The project is estimated to employ approximately 1,145 individuals during the project’s peak, with an average construction-related, on-site workforce of more than 550 individuals, and provide enough energy to power about 130,000 homes."


The BLM doesn't note that few permanent jobs will be created by the project, which will destroy more than 6.5 square miles of desert habitat, or that renewable energy plants in California are frequently shut down when the grid reaches capacity, with Arizona sometimes being paid to accept California's excess power generation.


Concerns range from building a large project on a sand transport corridor, to destruction of Native American sacred and cultural sites. The project area is home to BLM Sensitive Species, and is expected to impact Desert Tortoise and other species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Basin and Range Watch have written an excellent comment letter which outlines a host of concerns about the project: http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/Palen.html


The proposed action for the Palen project is to set it within the 4,221 acre right of way boundary, with 3,381 acres permanently occupied by major project components, and another 97 acres would be temporarily disturbed.


The proposed solar facility would consist of several main components: 

A single large solar field; 

Two-hundred power blocks of electrical generating capacity of 2.5 MW each; 

An electrical substation;

An operations and maintenance building; 

Up to 10 on-site groundwater wells; 

One temporary 28-acre construction laydown area; 

A roadway system consisting of internal and perimeter roads; 

A main access road from the Interstate 10 (I-10)/Corn Springs interchange; 

A 6.9-mile double-circuit 230 kV gen-tie extending from the project substation to the existing SCE Red Bluff Substation; and, 

An access road parallel to the gen-tie line.


There are a Reduced Footprint Alternative, an Avoidance Alternative, and a No Action/No Project Alternative. The Proposed Alternative is the largest of the alternatives. The Reduced Footprint Alternative would cover slightly less - 3,100 acres - eliminating use of a wash that crosses the project site. The Avoidance Alternative would further restrict development to 1,620 acres, reducing power generation to 200-230 MW.

The Notice of Availability for the Final SEIS/EIR and proposed LUPA will publish in the Federal Register on May 21 and opens a 30-day protest period as well as a governor’s consistency review. The BLM is the lead federal agency for the National Environmental Policy Act review, and Riverside County is the lead agency for the California Environmental Quality Act review. Pending the outcome of those processes, the BLM will issue a Record of Decision.


Information about the project, along with the agency preferred alternative and instructions for filing a protest, is available online at: https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/planAndProjectSite.do?methodName=renderDefaultPlanOrProjectSite&projectId=68122.


For more information:


BLM Statement:

https://www.blm.gov/press-release/blm-announces-availability-final-environmental-analysis-palen-solar-photovoltaic


Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement:

https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/projects/nepa/68122/144355/177913/Palen_Solar_Project_Final_EIS-EIR-LUPA_Main_Text_05-08-18.pdf


BLM's NEPA Website for the Palen Solar Project:

https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/planAndProjectSite.do?methodName=renderDefaultPlanOrProjectSite&projectId=68122


Basin and Range Watch's Palen Solar Power Project Page:

http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/Palen.html


The Desert Sun's coverage:

https://www.desertsun.com/story/tech/science/energy/2018/05/17/solar-farm-outside-joshua-tree-national-park-gets-go-ahead-trump/619629002/


From the Final EIR:


Proposed Action.

The Proposed Action would require the largest number of acres of the PV technology alternatives and would result in the following effects. 


Air Resources. The emission estimates indicate that construction activities under the Proposed Action could cause adverse effects by contributing to exceedances of the ozone and PM10 standards. 


Cultural Resources. All of the cultural resources within the project site would be destroyed during project grading and construction, but construction would be subject to numerous mitigation measures that would protect or avoid significant resources. The Proposed Action would not result in indirect impacts on historic-era resources and places of traditional cultural importance to tribes. The NEPA and CEQA analyses also conclude that the Project would contribute to cumulative effects on certain historic-era and prehistoric cultural resources. The CEQA analysis defines impacts to three additional resources that the NEPA analysis does not. Cumulative impacts are considered significant under CEQA.


Paleontological Resources. There is the potential that Project construction could damage or destroy paleontological resources; in particular, those limited excavation activities that would affect areas deeper than 3 feet below ground surface. The probability of encountering paleontological resources on the ground surface, where the majority of the grading and ground disturbance would occur, is considered low. 


Soil Resources. There is the potential for erosion by wind or water although EDF RE proposed to reduce grading and complete vegetation removal to the extent feasible. The Proposed Action has the potential to result in direct effects of up to 870 acres and indirect effects of up to 95 acres to the sand dune corridor. 


Vegetation Resources. The Proposed Action would result in direct impacts including destruction of special-status plants and loss or degradation of native vegetation and habitat. Indirect effects would also occur such as erosion, sedimentation, and introduction of invasive species. The primary vegetation types impacted by the solar facility would be Sonoran creosote bush Palen Solar Project Executive Summary ES-10 Final Supplemental EIS/EIR/LUPA scrub (2,874 acres) followed by unvegetated ephemeral dry wash (285 acres), desert dry wash woodland (196 acres) and stabilized and partially stabilized dunes (1 acre). The gen-tie line would impact additional acres, primarily Sonoran creosote bush scrub (100 acres) followed by desert dry wash woodland (41 acres) and unvegetated ephemeral dry wash (16 acres). 


Visual Resources. The Proposed Action would result in substantial visual contrast when viewed from some representative viewpoints, such as Corn Springs Road at the edge of the Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness, I-10 eastbound near the corners of the Project, and the portions of the Palen-McCoy and Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness nearest to the Project. Impacts to the overall visitor experience in the Joshua Tree National Park would not be substantial. Nighttime lighting and daytime glare would result in limited effects with mitigation. The Project, as a part of the cumulative scenario, would also present an unavoidable adverse cumulative effect, contributing to the development of the Chuckwalla Valley, visible to recreational users, and it would contribute to degradation of the region’s night-skies. 


Water Resources. The Proposed Action would have an impact on the Chuckwalla Valley Groundwater Basin balance but would not exceed net average recharge to the basin. It could contribute to a substantial long-term cumulative impact to the basin in conjunction with other foreseeable projects in the basin. (Operational water requirements are estimated at between 15 to 41 acre-feet annually.)


Wildlife Resources. The Proposed Action would result in direct effects including mortality, injury, or displacement of special-status animals; loss of native habitat; and interference with wildlife movement or migration. Indirect effects would also occur. Key special status species include the desert tortoise and the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and special status birds. The Proposed Action could impede wildlife movement for wide-ranging wildlife such as burro deer, kit fox, coyotes, and badgers, and on a population level could impede gene flow for desert tortoises. Impacts to habitat for special-status species would also occur as a result of loss of sand dune habitat, reduced sand transport, and effects on waters of the State. The Proposed Action would also affect environmental justice, lands and realty, mineral resources, multiple use classes, noise, public health and safety, recreation, social and economic impacts, special designations, transportation and public access, and wildland fire ecology. Mitigation would be required to reduce the effects.

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