Three Nevada residents, and the grassroot groups Basin & Range Watch and Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains are suing the Interior Department over its approval of the Searchlight Wind Energy Project, arguing the wind project would cause widespread damage to sensitive wildlife habitat.
Two groups -- Basin and Range Watch and Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains -- and three residents who live near what would become the Silver State's largest wind project filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada in Las Vegas against former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. They claim the defendants failed to properly analyze the full impacts of the project on sensitive wildlife species and nearby residents.
Salazar signed a record of decision (ROD) last month approving the 200-megawatt Searchlight Wind project, which would be built on 18,949 acres of federal land about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
The 30-page complaint says that the environmental impact statement (EIS) "presents a one-sided and incomplete portrait of the proposed project and its likely adverse environmental impacts."
"The Project would pose significant adverse harm to a wide array of sensitive and protected species -- including desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, bald eagles, and resident and migratory birds and bats -- through direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts," the complaint says.
Instead of addressing these issues, "Salazar selectively relied upon his own agency's internal policies seeking to promote renewable energy on public lands, while disregarding other policies" that call for protecting sensitive species such as golden eagles.
The complaint argues that the Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Salazar violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act when the project was approved.
The plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Miranda Du to vacate and remand the final EIS, biological opinion and ROD back to the agencies, and to issue an injunction preventing BLM "from allowing construction to commence on the project through ground-clearing, site preparation, or other such actions until such time as Defendants have fully complied with the law."
The plaintiffs want BLM and FWS to redo the documents to consider the larger impacts not only to sensitive wildlife but also to the property values and quality of life of those living nearby, said Dave Becker, a Portland, Oregon-based lawyer representing the two groups and three residents.
The 428-foot-tall wind turbines would be visible from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the east, as well as the town of Searchlight, Nevada, where the light and noise from the spinning turbines could affect property values and quality of life -- none of which was considered by BLM in its EIS, Becker said.
"There are many species we are concerned about with this project," he said. "But one of the species we are most concerned about is the human species. This project is too close to where tortoises, eagles and people live."
The high desert country is no place for an industrial-scale wind farm like Searchlight Wind. Numerous species of birds use the nearby Colorado River as a migration corridor roughly 10 miles away from the proposed wind farm site. The area is habitat for golden eagles and bald eagles fish nearby in Lake Mojave.
Also at risk is the Mojave Desert tortoise. Fish and Wildlife has estimated the Searchlight Wind project area contains more than 388 acres of tortoise habitat. Bighorn sheep use the area as a winter migration route.
A large wind project would fragment the area with roads and trenching for underground cables. And there would be a lot of traffic on the roads during the 30-year life of the project. More roads mean more motorists, and that means the potential for more road kills.
Quality-of-life is also a major concern outlined in the lawsuit.
Of the three individuals named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Ronald Van Fleet Sr. is a member of the Fort Mojave tribe who uses the BLM lands that will be affected by the project for spiritual activities, including spiritual runs.
The two other plaintiffs -- Ellen Ross and Judy Bundorf -- live near the project site, and both are active volunteers working with Basin and Range Watch, as well as Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains.
Ross owns 17 acres of property as close as 800 feet from the project site. Bundorf owns 90 acres of property about 1.4 miles north of the wind farm project site.
In other places, wind turbines associated with the project would be constructed as close as 1,345 feet from residential properties, and the final EIS fails to disclose the full extent of properties that would be visually and aurally affected by the project.
Similarly, the final EIS fails to disclose or analyze effects of the project on recreation and tourism in the Searchlight area. Instead the EIS estimated that as many as 800 visitors might be drawn to view the turbines without ever evaluating whether the 300,000 visitors who annually come to the area for its scenic beauty and to use and enjoy the public lands and resources of the area will avoid the newly-industrialized area and seek recreation and tourism opportunities elsewhere.