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Wal-Mart's solar power no-show

May 15, 2009 |  7:01 pm

A San Bernardino Superior Court judge on Thursday rebuffed Wal-Mart’s plan for a super center in the desert city of Yucca Valley, partly on the grounds that the giant retailer failed to take measures to reduce its contribution to global warming.

Environmentalists had been pressuring Wal-Mart to install solar panels to provide electricity for its proposed 184,000-square-foot store. But the retailer contended that the estimated 7,000 metric tons per year of planet-heating greenhouse gases that would result from the store’s operation was too insignificant to require such measures under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Judge Barry Plotkin, relying on contrary evidence from state air quality officials, ruled otherwise on Thursday, in a case that signals a growing legal consensus  that climate change must be considered by businesses and governments promoting new developments.

“California is in the forefront,” said Matthew Vespa, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based advocacy group, which sued Wal-Mart and Yucca Valley. The center also won a case last year against Desert Hot Springs after the city failed to analyze the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from a golf course and 2,600-home development.

Activists have had a powerful ally in California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who has won agreements from San Bernardino County, ConocoPhillips, the Port of Los Angeles, the San Diego Airport Authority, and Cilion, a Kern County ethanol plant, to measure or mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

The efforts to account for the effect of land use on climate change are part of California’s groundbreaking plan, adopted in December, to slash the state’s overall emissions by about 15% by 2020.

Yucca Valley’s proposed super center is designed to replace an existing 120,000-square-foot store. It would include a large grocery area, which Wal-Mart claimed would not affect the city’s four other grocery stores. Judge Plotkin, however, found the retailer’s economic analysis flawed.

The judge also deemed the retailer’s analysis of ozone and dust pollution inadequate.

“We’re disappointed with this ruling,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Michelle Bradford. “It delays the opportunity for Yucca Valley residents to enjoy the benefits of cost savings and new opportunities, at a store that is setting new standards for sustainable building.”

Bradford declined to say what those standards were. However, Wal-Mart has waged a public campaign  to promote its sustainability efforts in recent years.

The judge ordered city officials to examine the feasibility of an “environmentally superior ‘green’ Wal-Mart super center alternative.” “Wal-Mart has pilot projects to put solar on a very small fraction of their stores,” Vespa said. “And Wal-Mart has claimed for years their aim is 100% renewable power. But for a project in the California desert, outside Joshua Tree National Park, an ideal location for solar, they bent over backwards to avoid it.”

Yucca Valley town manager Andrew Takata said that city officials were “disappointed” with the court ruling, but that plans for the new store would proceed, either through an appeal or by revising the environmental impact statement.

--Margot Roosevelt

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