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Lawsuit alleges solar projects would harm sacred Native American sites

Native American group and its allies sue to stop six solar facilities from being built in the Southern California desert, arguing that they would affect treasured geoglyphs, burial sites and relics.

February 24, 2011|By Phil Willon and Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Alfredo Acosta Figueroa of La Cuna de Aztlan stands next to a rock edged with an Aztec sun calendar in the desert outside of Blythe, Calif. The group has filed a lawsuit to block six large solar facilities planned in Southern California deserts.
Alfredo Acosta Figueroa of La Cuna de Aztlan stands next to a rock edged with… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Blythe, Calif. — Stepping gingerly across a small mesa of manganese-stained stones, Alfredo Acosta Figueroa explained how the giant image of the creator etched into the earth guides the souls of mothers and children west toward Old Woman Mountain.

The image of Cicimiti, more detectable from the sky than on foot, is just one of many geoglyphs, Native American burial sites and ancient relics that Figueroa says are threatened by solar projects being fast-tracked near Blythe and other remote expanses in the Southern California desert.

"There's no way these people can circumvent all the sacred sites out here, and no way to fix it when the damage is done," said Figueroa, 77. "How can you mitigate Mother Earth?"

The Native American group La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, which Figueroa founded, has joined with environmentalists in a federal lawsuit to block six mammoth solar projects approved by the Department of the Interior.

The projects targeted include BrightSource Energy's 3,600-acre solar facility in San Bernardino County's Ivanpah Valley, where work began in October, and Solar Millennium's proposed 5,900-acre solar thermal project eight miles west of Blythe, abutting the geoglyph-covered mesa.

The lawsuit, filed in December, accuses the Bureau of Land Management of fast-tracking the solar projects without the required environmental review and without consulting with Native American tribes that oversee the preservation of sites with religious and cultural significance. The federal agency disregarded its formal agreement to consult with La Cuna to protect sacred sites that may be affected by projects on bureau-controlled lands, Figueroa said.

Cory Briggs, lead attorney for the groups that filed the lawsuit, said the Obama administration raced to approve solar projects in California before the Dec. 31 deadline for economic-stimulus funding. The stimulus package offered generous subsidies for renewable energy projects approved before the deadline.

Officials with the California Energy Commission acknowledged the difficulty of preventing effects on sacred sites in its final decision approving the Blythe project, saying that "given the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act deadlines, Commission and BLM staff have not had time to provide a detailed evaluation of each resource" that could be eligible for protection.

"This is just a boondoggle .... This isn't about solving an environmental problem or an economic problem. It's corporate welfare," Briggs said.

Along with Figueroa's organization, the lawsuit was filed by the environmental group Californians for Renewable Energy and seven Native American individuals. The other bureau-approved projects being challenged are: the Imperial Valley Solar facility, the Calico Solar Project; the Chevron Energy Solutions solar facility in the Lucerne Valley, and the Genesis Solar Energy Project west of Blythe.

Environmentalists fret over the projects' potential effects on native species such as the desert tortoise and the flat-tailed horned lizard. But allegations that the solar projects will result in lasting cultural damage are relatively new.

Another local tribe, the Quechan, had headed to federal court seeking a permanent injunction against a proposed Imperial County solar installation that the tribe says will destroy sacred sites.

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management declined to comment about the La Cuna lawsuit.

According to permit records for the renewable energy sites, however, the federal agency consulted with the California Native American Heritage Commission, which identifies and catalogs places of religious or cultural significance to Native Americans, and sent out letters to tribes throughout the affected areas seeking comment.

In the permits for the solar projects, officials with the energy commission confirm that archaeological research has shown that Native American religious and cultural sites, many undiscovered, can be found throughout California's vast deserts, which have been home to native tribes going back 10,000 years.

Officials with Solar Millennium, developer of the solar thermal project near Blythe, said the design of the project was altered several times "to reduce potential impacts to natural and cultural resources," according to a company statement.

"We continue to be sensitive and responsive to the cultural and environmental concerns of Native Americans, local communities and organizations across our areas of operation," the company stated.

However, Briggs said those "consultations" amounted to little more than sending out notices and holding public hearings, allowing tribal members to comment.

Figueroa, donning a straw fedora and bolo tie, swept his hand over the proposed site for the Solar Millennium project, which will be within a stone's throw of the geoglyphs he holds so dear.

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