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Endangered tortoises delay Mojave Desert solar plant

April 28, 2011 | 12:18 pm

Tortoise allen j. schaben
The Obama administration has halted the building of two-thirds of a massive solar project in San Bernardino's Mojave Desert as a new federal assessment found that more than 600 endangered desert tortoises would die as a result of construction.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management assessment this week disputed the estimate by BrightSource Energy, developer of the 392 MW solar thermal plant, that only 38 of the reptiles would be disturbed by construction at the 5.6-square mile Ivanpah Valley site near Primm, Nev. [corrected: an earlier version of this post said 5.6 acres]

Questions concerning the California tortoises highlight the friction between wilderness conservation and the quest for cleaner power. Many environmentalists contend it would be preferable to subsidize smaller solar arrays on commercial and residential rooftops, or on industrial acreage, than offer government loan guarantees to large complexes on wildlands that require transmission lines to transport the electricity to urban areas.

The federal order suspends construction activity on most of the Ivanpah project until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service redrafts a previous scientific opinion on the effect on the tortoise, which may come as soon as next month. The Oakland-based BrightSource recently received a $1.6-billion federal loan guarantee for the project and intends to raise $250 million more after taking the company public.

In a statement, company spokesman Keely Wachs said the new government projections “are not consistent with the actual numbers of tortoise found on the project site. It appears that the largest concentrations of tortoise are outside the project and in areas that we designed the project to avoid."

The BLM's new assessment estimates that more than 3,000 acres of tortoise habitat would eventually be lost as a result of construction, and more than 160 adult tortoises in the project area will have to be captured and moved, in addition to 600 dying as a result of the project.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will use the new estimates to determine whether finishing the project puts the species in jeopardy. If not, the agency is expected to set new limits on how many animals may be killed, injured or harassed.

Environmentalists wanted the energy complex relocated because they said it will harm tortoises. But BrightSource made design changes intended to alleviate environmental concerns.

RELATED:

Ivanpah solar project breaks ground

Army seeks to move 1,100 desert tortoises

California deserts among most imperiled wildlands

-- Margot Roosevelt

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Photo: A federally threatened desert tortoise looks out of its burrow in the Ivanpah Valley in the eastern Mojave Desert. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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