(CN) – A California federal court granted an injunction to the Quechan Tribe in its dispute with the Department of the Interior over a giant solar power project in the desert that might endanger the tribe’s cultural sites.
Tessera Solar’s 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project will spread 28,360 “SunCatcher” dishes across 6,360 acres of public land, about 14 miles west of El Centro.
The Quechan Tribe claims the Department of the Interior rushed over its concerns to approve the project in October.
Imperial Valley Solar has already spent millions of dollars preparing this project, and delays could throw investment and financing opportunities off track, but U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said the tribe’s claims carry more weight.
Both parties agree that the area in question is important to Native American groups, identifying 459 cultural resources such as prehistoric settlements, ancient trails, burial sites and areas of archaeological importance.
The Quechan Tribe also argues the project would endanger the habitat of the flat-tailed horned lizard, which appears in the tribe’s creation story.
Burns brushed aside concerns about the lizard, which is under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act, finding that extensive environmental review has allayed those concerns.
He did find merit in the tribe’s argument that the Bureau of Land Management approved the project before providing adequate consultation.
“The tribe was entitled to be provided with adequate information and time, consistent with its status as a government that is entitled to be consulted,” Burns wrote. “The tribe’s consulting rights should have been respected. It is clear that did not happen here.”
Federal agencies may not have the logistic ability to comply with every tribal request, but they cannot steamroll over those needs either, the ruling states.
“None of this analysis is meant to suggest federal agencies must acquiesce to every tribal request,” Burns wrote. “That said, government agencies are not free to glide over requirements imposed by congressionally approved statues and duly adopted regulations.”
Burns also criticized the volume of exhibits that the government produced to bolster its claim that it consulted with the tribe.
“A significant number of the cited exhibits are duplicates or inapt,” Burns wrote. “By failing to weed out marginal, needless, or duplicate citations, Defendants create the impression they are padding the record – perhaps because the evidence doesn’t favor them.”