Stimulus Greed Endangers Tribe's Cultural History, American Indians Say

It is not exactly the mortgage mess, but it strikes a similar chord.

When Congress passed the economic stimulus package in 2009, it promised billions of dollars to “shovel ready” government projects that could get up and running quickly. But the scramble for the flood of money led to some shortcuts being taken to meet start-up deadlines -- leaving problems that will have to be dealt with later.

And that is exactly what the Quechan Indians are charging in a federal suit filed Wednesday in the Southern District of California. They allege that the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management rushed approval of a massive solar energy project in the Imperial Valley that would place more than 28,000 solar dishes across 6,144 acres of public land -- and that they neglected to take into consideration the Quechans' historic and cultural claims to the land.

And the project, they say, will endanger the habitat of the Flat Tailed Horned Lizard, which “is a central part of the tribe’s creation story.”

The project's approval, which was announced on Oct. 13, was the first of a number of large-scale solar projects placed on “fast track” approval by the Department of the Interior in the hopes of getting stimulus money to help fund them.

Whether this suit will have a ripple effect on other pending projects is uncertain. A BLM spokesman said they couldn't comment on a pending lawsuit.

The Quechan Tribe, which resides on a 45,000-acre reservation along the Mexico-California-Arizona border -- an area it was granted in 1884 -- numbered fewer than 3,000 members in the 2000 census. The tribe's lawsuit states that it has lived in the Mojave Desert for thousands of years, and that the construction project will destroy artifacts and endanger the 432 cultural sites there that are important to the tribe.

“Interior arbitrarily placed the IVS (Imperial Valley Solar project) on an artificial ‘fast track’ in order to achieve the applicants goal of obtaining millions of dollars of federally available financing that purportedly required project approval prior to the end of 2010,” the suit charges.

“Despite Interior’s and the applicant’s efforts to ‘fast track’ the review of the IVS, Congress did not waive or limit the applicability of any federal laws or regulations related to compliance with the national Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act or the Federal Land Policy and Management Act,” it continued, charging important portions of those acts were ignored.

The project would be built by Tessera Solar, a multinational corporation based in England. The company, according to its own press releases, is currently “working on two of the world’s largest solar plants – both in California.” Imperial Valley is one and the other is the Calico Solar project, which along with the Imperial Valley  will produce about 1,550 megawatts of clean, renewable energy annually.

A company spokesman said that "Tessera Solar and the BLM engaged in lengthy and thorough conversations with native Americans and other interested parties that governed the treatment  of cultural resources."

In its press release announcing the approval of the project, Tessera Solar said it had worked extensively with environmental groups to get the project approved. But Serena Ingre of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that focus of their work with the company was on land and water use and not the cultural impact of the project.

“That is outside our area if expertise,” she said.