April 20, 2011

Tortoise finds curtail solar-site construction

Brightsource doesn't see stoppage impacting construction schedule
The Brightsource Energy solar power site in the Ivanpah Valley. The firm still expects energy to come on line in 2013. (Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise )

The Press-Enterprise

Ivanpah Valley, CA -- Federal officials have told a solar developer to stop work on two-thirds of a construction site in northeast San Bernardino County because no more tortoises can be disturbed.

Until wildlife authorities reassess the tortoise population, work on the $2.1 billion project -- hailed by the Obama administration -- is limited to a 2-square-mile area cleared of the protected reptiles last fall. BrightSource Solar's entire work site, on public land near Primm, Nev., is 5.6 square miles.

The suspension order, made official Friday, was triggered when biologists hired to remove tortoises from the property handled their 39th animal earlier this month, said Amy Fesnock of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

A federal permit allowed for the displacement of no more than 38 desert tortoises found within the project's borders, said Fesnock, a wildlife biologist in the BLM's California office. The species is listed as threatened with extinction.

The suspension forced crews from Bechtel, BrightSource's contractor, to stop building fences and to fill in postholes and trenches so tortoises won't fall in and get injured or trapped.

Work cannot resume in the affected areas, known as Phase 2 and 3, until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants permission. The agency is expected by the end of May to complete a new analysis of the BrightSource project's effect on desert tortoises, Fesnock said.

To allow more tortoises to be displaced, the service must find that doing so does not jeopardize the survival of the species, she said.

A BrightSource official said the setback isn't expected to be a major obstacle.

"We don't see this as having an impact on the construction schedule and anticipate that power will come online in 2013," company spokesman Keely Wachs said in an email.

BrightSource's plans call for three arrays of thousands of mirrors that focus sunlight on three "power towers," where steam is made to generate electricity. At peak capacity, the arrays are expected to generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes. The project is next to Interstate 15 in the Ivanpah Valley.

BrightSource, based in Oakland, announced last week that it had completed financing for the project, including $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy and a $168 million investment from Google.

The project has been praised by President Barack Obama as a step toward reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

It was one of several proposals approved last year by U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar under an expedited or "fast tracked" environmental review process.

Some environmentalists now fault that process.

"The BLM's fast-tracked environmental review seriously underestimated the impacts of the Ivanpah power plant on the desert tortoise," said Michael Connor, the California director of Western Watersheds Project, which is suing the government to halt the solar development.

The work stoppage, he said, "is a direct result of that rushed and deeply flawed analysis."

BrightSource commissioned surveys in 2007 and 2008 that found only 16 tortoises in the entire 5.6 square miles. The Fish and Wildlife Service used the survey results to estimate a population of 32 tortoises on the site and to set a "take" limit of 38 animals that could be displaced.

Since work began in October, many more tortoises were found than expected. The BLM now estimates the population at about 140.

Healthy tortoises displaced by construction will be held in pens until they can be relocated to a nearby area in the Ivanpah Valley. Based on past relocations, at least some of those tortoises will die after being moved.