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March 3 Deadline for Comment: Overwhelming Opposition to Soda Mountain Solar Project

Bechtel proposes to build Soda Mountain Solar on 4,179 acres of public land adjacent to Mojave National Preserve This project is threatening the resources and landscape of this treasured unit of the National Park System. To look at more photos of this beautiful area visit: http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/SodaMountain.html The Soda Mountain project will interfere markedly with the habitat corridor linking Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks. The environmental impacts of Soda Mountain include decreased spring discharge at Zzyzx, loss of habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub, loss of high-quality desert tortoise habitat, increased habitat fragmentation for desert bighorn sheep, and loss of wildlife connectivity with nearby wilderness areas. Soda Mountain will obstruct dramatic views into the Preserve and degrade the dark skies experience of the park’s 550,000 annual visitors. Overwhelming Opposition to Soda Mountain Solar Project The Bureau of Land Management held a public meeting in January, and about 30 people showed up, and many made comments. Representatives from applicant Bechtel were also present. Many local residents and environmental groups opposed this project because it is in the wrong place: within a mile of the Mojave National Preserve, a beloved park unit in the heart of the desert. The project also would block important desert bighorn sheep connectivity between mountain ranges. The project has a long history, first proposed in 2008 by a company called Caithness, with a larger footprint. The project was revised in 2009 to avoid washes. In 2011 the north array was shrunk back to avoid a pinch point of a utility corridor to the southwest. Now that Bechtel has purchased the project the right-of-way (ROW) is 4,179 acres, with the actual solar array being 2,165 acres. Fences will be around individual arrays and not whole ROW; washes would be open for bighorn sheep movement. Bechtel pulled back the north array in the west to avoid a local population of the rare shrub Emory’s crucifixion thorn. Bechtel said they chose the site because of two existing transmission lines and easy vehicular access during construction. They claimed “low environmental sensitivity.” The project would take 2-3 years to construct. Deadline for comments is March 3, 2014.

Public Comments

A union representative spoke in support of the project, but nearly all other comments were in opposition.   A Joshua Tree resident commented on owning a cultural center which relies on tourism, tourists traveling between parks, and much international tourism. She talked of “deeply spiritual cultural resources that you know if you have lived here a long time.” The economic importance should be realized — there is a need for long term jobs, long term thinking she said.   Local conservationist Claudia Sall spoke of the 60 acre-feet of water per year that will be estimated to be used on the project. She said there is nothing in place for groundwater reports, threshold points for any lowering of the water table. A new ordinance in the county means this project would not fly today. The ordinance limits visual and wildlife impacts within two miles of parks. She pointed out how the posters of maps of the project in the room did not show the park boundary, or wilderness areas.   David Lamfrom of the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy said the project has no Power Purchase Agreement so the project could be moved, the jobs moved. All major environmental groups wrote letters opposing this project, so this solar project is more widely opposed than most, he said. The original Caithness project was deprioritized over bighorn sheep conflicts, and not included in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) planning process and maps. When Bechtel bought the project it was prioritized again and placed back on DRECP maps. But it is not in a solar zone under the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement developed by the Department of the Interior. “Why is there not an alternative placing it in a zone? Millions of dollars of planning are being ignored,” Lamfrom said. he also pointed out that one existing transmission line is full, and it is not certain if the other line owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is available. He requested the public speak to the county if you are a land owner or a business owner.   Los Angeles resident and long-time desert activisit Tom Budlong explained that the National Environmental Policy Act (under which the BLM reviews projects on public land) directs that project proposals must have other reasonable alternatives, not necessarily in the technical expertise of the applicant. Rooftop solar alternatives, Central Valley alternative, smaller projects in other locations should be analyzed. “I think this meeting will disappear into the sands like a glass of water,” he said, since the BLM was not recording public oral comments any longer. Seth Shteir of the National Parks Cconservation Association opposed the project at this location and asked to move it. This is the closest project to a national park that he knew of, less than a mile from the Mojave National Preserve. The Preserve is the third largest national park unit in lower the 48 states, with 500,000 visitors per year. The Purpose and Need statement in BLM’s environmental review document was lacking, he said. It is too narrow, resulting also in a narrow range of alternatives. The project conflicts with the recent renewable energy ordinance passed by San Bernardino County that within 2 miles of a park there shall not be a project that distracts from visual resources. there is uncertainty about water impacts to the federally endangered Mojave tui chub in nearby Soda Springs. “It is hard to believe bighorn sheep will weave their way through the solar arrays,” he said. Desert sheep biologist John Wehausen says this is an important connectivity corridor, between the Soda Mountains and Cady Mountains. He asked to extend comment period 60 days. Joan Taylor of the Sierra Club said we need to support sustainable renewable energy. The Sierra Club says this site is very inappropriate. The lake effect of the shiny solar panels may draw in birds. A BLM boiler plate process is not efficient, the alternatives are not sufficient legally. The state is ahead in its Renwable Portfolio Standard goals so this project is not a priority. Local rooftop solar provides sustainable jobs. “This is the Last Frontier,” she said. Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council talked of the beauty, and stunning open and wild areas where people visit, hike, and camp in the California Desert. Any “multiplier effect” of solar project jobs does not take into account the loss of tourism jobs she pointed out.   Fraser Haney of the Mojave Land Trust commented on how many land trusts, including his own, have purchased private land inholdings given to the BLM for conservation. The Wildlands Conservancy had purhcased old Catellus lands for this reason. Hundreds of thousands of acres were given to protect connectivity between parks and core areas of the desert. This site is unsuitable for any commercial development he said. Other comments mentioned that the BLM should hold public meetings in Las Vegas, NV for any projects impacting the Mojave National Preserve since it is a close city. Sign a Petition against this solar plant at: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/protect-mojave-national-preserve-denying-bechtels-request-public-land-grant-build-its-soda-mountain/QVjW78fy  

Details about the Soda Springs Solar Power Plant

Proposed Location: San Bernardino County, 6 miles southwest of Baker. Electricity Production Capacity: Up to 358 MW on BLM-administered public land Company: Soda Mountain Solar, LCC Acreage: Approximately 4,179 acres Status: A Notice of Availability of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was published on November 29, 2013. Public Comment: Publication of the NOA initiates a public comment period open until March 3, 2014. Electrical Transmission Connection: This project will not have a gentie. It will connect directly to an existing transmission line. Publication of the Notice of Availability initiates a public comment period open until March 3, 2014. BLM is seeking public comments on planning issues, concerns, potential impacts, alternatives, and mitigation measures that should be considered in the analysis of the proposed action. Written comments may be sent to: Attn: Jeffery Childers, Soda Mountain Solar Project Manager, 22835 Calle San Juan De Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA 92553 or to the e-mail address sodamtnsolar@blm.gov For further information please contact Jeffery Childers, Project Manager at  (951) 697-5308. Bureau of Land Management Barstow Field Office 2601 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311 Phone: (760) 252-6000 – Fax: (760) 252-6098 Office Hours: 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., M-F

The BLM published the Notice of Availability for the Soda Mountain Solar Project’s Draft California Desert Conservation Area Plan Amendment and a Draft EIS/EIR. The Draft EIS/EIR analyzes the site-specific impacts of the project on air quality, vegetation and wildlife, livestock grazing, cultural resources, water resources, recreation resources, wilderness characteristics, visual resources, and other resources and issues.   Soda Mountain Solar LLC has requested authorization to construct, operate, maintain and decommission the Soda Mountain Solar Project, a photovoltaic facility and necessary ancillary facilities, including a project substation, access road, realignment of an existing designated route (Rasor Road), operations and maintenance buildings and lay down areas. The project is proposed on 4,179 acres with the solar field and associated facilities occupying approximately 2,222 acres. The proposed site is approximately six miles south of the community of Baker and straddles both sides of Interstate 15. Publication of the NOA initiated a 90-day public comment period that ends on March 3, 2014. Written comments may be sent by email to: jchilders@blm.gov, by fax to (951)697-5229, or by mail: Attn: Jeffery Childers, Soda Mountain Solar Project Manager, 22835 Calle San Juan De Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA 92553 or to the e-mail address sodamtnsolar@blm.gov Further details about the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project can be obtained by contacting Childers by phone (951) 697-5308, or e-mail at jchilders@blm.gov, or found on the following website: http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/renewableenergy/soda_mountain/. You can Sign a Petition against this solar plant at: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/protect-mojave-national-preserve-denying-bechtels-request-public-land-grant-build-its-soda-mountain/QVjW78fy Please visit this website to look at more photos of this beautiful area: http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/SodaMountain.html

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