By Ruth Musser-Lopez
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors denied both a ground water permit and the certification of the environmental review document for Regenerate Corporation’s Soda Mountain Solar Project, effectuating a significant setback to that proposed massive scale solar farm.
Resting their cases on the merits of economic and environmental hopes and fears, advocates and adversaries on both sides of the proposed 287-megawatt output, 1,767 acre Soda Mountain Solar project came out in mass at Tuesday’s board of supervisor’s regular meeting, 57 of whom weighed in on the direction the county should take on what some contend was the most controversial county issue of the past four-year election cycle.
The project had been proposed for placement in the desert, along the I-15 corridor between Barstow and Baker just south of the Zyzyx turnoff, adjacent to the East Mojave Preserve in the county’s First District where Robert Lovingood is in a tight and heated race for re-election against Angela Valles.
Nearly 4,000 protest signatures, a letter signed by 19 scientists, including those at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz, Harvard University and Cornell University asking to “stop one of the most harmful utility scale projects in the nation” were received by the county. After roughly four hours of public testimony, the meeting crescendoed with each of the supervisors weighing in, climaxing with supervisors Josie Gonzalez and Robert Lovingood engaging in a cross examination of the project proponents. The surprising finale was the conclusions and motion made by Lovingood, contrary to county planning director Terri Rahhal’s recommendation to approve the project and the repeated attempts by county counsel urging rephrasing of the motion.
Fifty-seven speakers from the public signed in to submit their three minutes of comment in the hope of influencing the outcome of the yet unknown board vote on either or both the approvals needed to allow the project to proceed.
Speakers in support of the project, many garbed in orange t-shirts emboldened with a construction union logo, had the first shot. Workers with families to support, including several speaking in Spanish without an interpreter expressed their hope for immediate jobs near their desert homes where they could make good wages to support their wife and children. One even expressing his hope to be able to purchase Christmas gifts for family members.
Conversely, adversaries of the project repeatedly expressed that they want jobs too, but this is the wrong project and with solar energy done the right way, many more jobs could be created closer to home by directing solar development to existing disturbed urban areas in vacant lots, and above parking lots or on roof tops.
The desecration of the scenic view shed of the East Mojave preserve landscape as viewed from the I-15 upon entering the Soda Lake region was largely the concern of many of the speakers who expressed that its preservation is a critical element of the “ecotourism” industry. “Susan Sorelis, a Mojave Desert resident from the Baker-Shoshone area, said that “there are scientific, economic and legal flaws with the environmental impact report but I am here to tell a different story. I am a 4th generation Mojave Desert resident and my great grandfather founded Shoshone and Baker….when the mining industry collapsed in that area, we went from 700 jobs to 4 jobs. We were extremely fortunate to be near Death Valley and because of the National Park our communities made a comeback and survived through ‘ecotourism.’ That is a 45 million dollar business for business owners in the area. We want an economy that is sustainable, not just for today, but for our workers in the future.”
Proponents countered that there are already impacts to the view with the adjacent freeway and power line corridor and that the project can not be seen from most parts of the nearby Mojave National Preserve is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states. In reply, opponents observed that the existing infrastructure is not in front of or in the way of the view as one is passing by on the I-15 while the solar project would be an “in your face” industrial distraction in that well traveled corridor.
Michael Gordon, a professional landscape photographer objected to the “misrepresentation” by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the project proponents using photographs to wrongfully illicit the public perception of the project area as a stark uncomely location. He stated that the landscapes in the East Mojave were “unparalleled” and displayed his own photograph of the project area.
Gordon also objected to the 328 million gallons of water to be used at the project site, following up on the comments of Neil Nadler, of the Alliance for Desert Preservation, who asserted that the BLM’s unbridled peddling of unallocated lands is a “bombshell of development waiting to go off with 100,000 planned developments adjacent to our rural areas. Communities are already over-drafting over-stressed ground water basins [of] millions of gallons of water. The county water needs to be preserved for its citizens.”
Nadler along with several other speakers pointed to five already degraded areas that are designated and would be suitable for development with groundwater. Nadler asserted that “the BLM’s agenda is to develop whatever it can as quickly as it can, yet these unallocated BLM managed lands are precious. If the county does not take full control now, the high desert portion of the county will be unrecognizable. Soda Mountain is a foot in the door.”
The major environmental issues to be mitigated and addressed in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document is the water usage and the adverse impact upon scenic resources, the movement of bighorn sheep and the destruction of tortoise habitat. The size of the project was reduced, and an array of solar panels originally planned for the area north of Interstate 15 was eliminated from the proposal as the BLM’s attempt to mitigate concerns about the project’s potential impacts to bighorn sheep movement and scenic values. “The smaller project footprint reduces potential interference with future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway,” the BLM’s statement said. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has not concurred with the BLM’s representation that the impact to the struggling bighorn and tortoise populations can be eliminated or is sufficient even with the additional measures incorporated into the project by the county planning staff. According to Rahhal these actions would include offsite land acquisition to provide desert tortoise habitat, installation of water sources for bighorn sheep cut off from natural water sources by the freeway, funding toward restoration of access for bighorn sheep to both sides of the interstate.
Regenerate Power spokeswoman, Sarojini Lall made the assertion that the “project mitigation efforts will help rather than hinder ‘bighorn sheep connectivity.” She referred to “new water sources” and $250,000 for “connectivity” and “genetic management projects.”
“There are no feasible mitigation measures to counter the cumulative impacts of the project” Todd Seuss, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, said, explaining that the project is in the middle of a migration route between Death Valley and the Mojave Preserve and that the massive solar panel array will have “an adverse effect on a couple of decades’ work on Bighorn sheep.” The preserve is less than a half mile of the area of potential impact and Seuss asserts that the location is not right for solar, though he supports solar energy. He said he simply wants to take the right approach with the many alternative locations available.
In response to questioning by Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Rahhal admitted that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had concern for the project and that even with the added measures, migration for the bighorn was not adequate. “Fish and Wildlife think we are not there with the mitigation. We are not there with endorsing the project or approval of the project.”
Rahhal reported to the Board that in order to approve a CEQA document where there is significant impact there must be overriding considerations. She recommended that the Board approve a “finding of fact” that it was 1) prepared in accordance with CEQA , 2) mitigation has been proposed, 3) the conclusions are correct, and 4) the findings point out benefits of the project that would warrant its approval despite the adverse consequences of the project.
A finding of overriding consideration would have stated that though environmental impacts were shown to exist that cannot be fully mitigated or alleviated by any measure, approval of the project would have been warranted because the benefits of the project override the damage that the project would result in. The board, ultimately, did not accede making the finding or overriding consideration. Nor did it accept the liability of such a decision.
Rahhal emphasized that the project is a clean and renewable energy project that would enhance the desert economy, creating 215 on-site construction jobs over a period of 18 to 22 months. She referred to an economic study prepared for the project that asserts $143 million would be spent on construction labor and services, 53 full time jobs would be created over the 27-year life of the facility, with $50 million paid in wages and a total of $263 million in total economic output. Local sales and use tax revenue, she said, would be $11 million. Proponents also represented to the the board that the tax revenues and injection of money into local economies from employees needing food, housing, and other commodities would improve and stimulate the economy.
In making such a recommendation, Rahhal was asking the board to accept the BLM’s judgment in approving the project and to transfer liability for any damage that could potentially be caused by the project to the county and its stakeholders and taxpayers, including remnants potentially left behind in the event of a corporate bankruptcy, some project opponents stated.
Rahhal argued that denying issuance of the water permits for the five wells including four ground water monitoring wells and the use of water would not stop the project but would simply mean that water would be hauled from off-site locations without additional county approvals.
Conversely, David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert and National Wildlife programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, explained that denial of well permits and the CEQA certification is a major setback for the project and forces the BLM to make major revisions to its own environmental statement that currently relies upon the acquisitions of the well permits and an approved desert ground water pumping plan in making its determination of the environmental effect, he told the Sentinel.
“The board voted against approving the wells for the project,” Lamfrom said. “This will require the company to obtain water elsewhere. Trucking water in for the project will increase the carbon footprint of the overall project which will offset the ‘clean and green’ benefit of the solar energy production.”
Hauled water would require 60 additional truck trips during construction and would “increase significant air quality impacts for the project” the county staff report says.
Information available to the Sentinel suggest that the air quality impact would also likely need to be adjusted in the BLM’s environmental statement, which amended document would likely need to be recirculated forcing delays well beyond January 2017 and the onset of a new presidential administration.
A surprising twist on the economic impact issue came toward the end of the meeting when Lovingood opened up the board discussion by stating that the reduced footprint of the project reduces the number of jobs that the project would create and that an expanded or better technology, as solar panels become more affordable and efficient in the future could also reduce the number of jobs in the future. He asked Rahhal what the phrase “long- term” meant, to which she answered that the “life of the project is 27 years.” He asked Rahhal what the long-term environmental impacts would be, to which she answered “significant environmental impacts.” Lovingood then pointed out that a similar and recently considered project went bankrupt but did not declare that bankruptcy until after it had already scraped off 10,000 acres of land and then abandoned it. He asked Rahhal if this event had been taken into consideration in making the findings of overriding consideration. Rahhal answered that the current project is on BLM land in the area and the decision to allow the project had been made by the BLM based upon the BLM’s experienced professionals recommendations. Lovingood countered that “once disturbed, once scraped, it’s not going to be put back together. Do we have that protection that they have that experience in place from their learning in Riverside [County] what happened there. Rahhal attempted to assure the supervisor that the project minimizes impacts and there would be ongoing efforts to stabilize the site.
Reyad Fezzani, chairman and CEO of Regenerate Power Corporation, the applicant, said that a bond would be kept throughout the life of the project and the land would be returned back to its original form. He claimed that the project would not proceed without having full financing and that there is a lot of interest from buyers across the state and that the project would actually be able to deliver power to any of the buyers. He referenced a rigorous BLM process with the environmental review and studies that took five years to accomplish and get the project where it is. He said that the BLM would attest that it is probably one of the most studied projects in all of the operations throughout Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino County. He said that the project would be backed by union pension funds including the IBEW, ironworkers, and retirees who want to direct capital toward good projects.
Lovingood then asked how many homes would be provided power and how much power will the project provide. At first stating 175,000 and then consulting with his attorney, Fezzani adjusted his answer to indicate 75,000 homes would be provided power. Lovingood then responded that the power would be going east to the Midwest and not necessarily be used in San Bernardino County.
“We do not have a straight line connection of where the power is produced and where it is going” responded his attorney. Lovingood said, “You don’t have the right information about the job projection either.”
“When the project started,” the proponent said, “we had so many jobs. That project was reduced. The footprint was reduced. So now the number of employees is reduced. We do not expect to alter the project further.”
Lovingood said, “This is your business, but as technology improves, the need for your power may decline. If there is another reduction, you will have to reduce your need for labor.
Fezzani sought to assure Lovingood that “We have capacity to sell more. We will still have the same amount of land to produce more if the technology approves. We do not expect to reduce. As panels get cheaper and more efficient, we could produce more.”
Lovingood queried with regard to the current lack of a power purchase agreement, at which point Third District Supervisor Janice Rutherford voiced her strong concern that there was no power purchase or transmission agreements in place. While transmission lines owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are nearby within the I-15 corridor, earlier in the meeting Pat Flannigan of Joshua Tree had earlier commented that the company had rejected the project as too expensive.
To Rutherford’s inquiry, Fezzani in consultation with his attorney responded that power sales are confidential and are difficult to obtain until a permit is obtained. “The fact is that things have changed since 2010 and the agreements you could get before, you can’t get [now]. They are not so easy for the larger projects to get because buyers want to know that there is a viable project.”
That the power sales agreements were being kept a secret did not bode well for the proponents. Supervisor Josie Gonzales began to grill the proponents. “There is no guarantee that the applicant will see a benefit from the power produced,” Gonzales concluded. “We are being asked by the state to help it meet its goals for renewable energy production and we must also consider the economic benefit to the county. However, the overriding benefit is neither local or long term.”
“Now, I am going to ask some questions,” she said, “and if they, too, are confidential, I will have some comments…You signed an agreement assuring maximum sales in the county of San Bernardino. Now you are saying that to disclose the details of the agreement is not something you would do because it is confidential. You say you could tell us in confidentiality if you decide to after conferring with the company. Will the energy produced by this project provide a direct benefit to the residents and communities in surrounding communities?” she asked.
Fezzani responded, “The project would produce power and we would direct the direction of the power, however the project is so big that the county could not take all the power from it.”
“What are the long term benefits to this county?” Gonzales pressed.
“The permit will last 20 years,” said Fezzani “During that time, operations, support maintenance will require trained expert staff, depending upon how you decide to progress. We will drill wells for water, for cleaning. We will use a relatively small amount during operation compared to the dust mitigation during the project. There is the benefit of the sales tax related to the equipment that we install on the site.” He further referenced “the investment and maintenance of the plant at the site for 25 years.”
Gonzales responded, “Sir you lost me when you said that you would produce more power than this county could use. How many homes are you talking about? We have 2.2 million people in our county. You are going to produce so much power that we are not big enough for you?”
Fezzani sought to explain, saying, “The power lines are the reason why we cannot take from one location and deliver to another. How much power could be sold, I don’t have a number for that. We have to look at how the power is delivered today, but we have to know how the utilities are going to deliver it.”
Gonzales said, “These questions should be answered up front. What benefits would be denied the very residents from whom these benefits are going to be derived. You are supposed to be prepared to sell to the residents. You are proposing to put this on their backs, in their back yards. What do you offer?”
Fezzani continued the back and forth, saying, “It depends on utilities that would chose or not chose to buy power from us. We did commit to the school in Baker so that they could use the power. While the applicant is building the project, they cannot control the market.”
Gonzales said, “There is something that is called forward planning How do we best serve the people who year after year have called this their home? Be prepared in moving forward…
“We are being asked to make a decision of overriding consideration to help the state meet its goals for renewable energy production,” Gonzales continued. “But we need to also look at the economic benefit to the county. Upon reading this and processing this I examine these two components carefully. We are being asked to approve that knowing that there are impacts that cannot be mitigated [and] that the benefits outweigh the bad.” But she said, “The overriding statement is neither local or long term. The energy base benefits are not provided directly to the community. This makes it very difficult for me. I have supported solar. This makes it hard for me to support this one. We have to go forward with energy projects that don’t encumber. [This supplies] energy that goes elsewhere, generated on our back. Large scale energy sold to other companies. We need the affordable lower rate energy. It’s not the applicant’s fault, but a problem of the state’s policy. There is no guarantee that the applicant will see benefit from the power produced.“The jobs are valuable. I support creating these jobs, maintaining jobs, continuing with life not having jobs come to an end. But we need to work harder and longer in bringing permanent jobs. I get that these are temporary jobs. We are moving in new frontiers. We have to figure out a better way. We see our residents at some point receive out of state renewable energy that would then allow our residents pay the lower and more affordable rates, for starters….I would like to see developers in the future offer to bring benefits to our residents. I am thinking that there is and has been a disproportionate thrust on the back of this county. We are ‘easy pick’ns.’ Our residents through their choice of geographic location to live here have become the victims because they are so well situated in the desert where they have a lot of good space. We came up with and identified land that we thought was a good idea for solar. We would like to see developers in the future offer bringing benefits to our residents. I am unable to support this project.”
After declaring that “this is the wrong project in the wrong place” Lovingood moved to “deny” the water permits and the certification of the environmental impact report, which was seconded by Supervisor Gonzales and affirmed by the third vote of Supervisor Janice Rutherford, with both supervisors James Ramos and Hagman dissenting.
By Ruth Musser-Lopez