Ocotillo wind power project advances

The Interior Department on Friday approved the construction of a large-scale wind energy project across 10,000 acres of public lands on the outskirts of the desert town of Ocotillo.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed off on the project’s Environmental Impact Statement over the objection of Native American tribal officials who remain concerned about the aesthetic impact of the project on ancestral lands and the potential for disturbing cultural and archaeological artifacts, including possible cremation sites.

The Bureau of Land Management said it worked closely with Native American tribes and neighboring residents to minimize impacts of the project.

"After careful consideration and environmental review, we have worked with interested parties to create a project that protects the important cultural values of the area and produces clean energy on American soil to power the population centers of Southern California," said Jim Keenna, state director for the BLM, in a statement.

The project would form a crescent shape around Ocotillo in Imperial County, providing electricity to customers of San Diego Gas & Electric in San Diego and southern Orange counties. The power plant was designed to generate enough electricity to supply about 95,000 homes, according to a BLM statement. It will tie into a major transmission project, the Sunrise Powerlink, that is slated for completion as soon as June.

Pattern Energy, which has offices in La Jolla, is developing the wind farm under a 20-year power purchase agreement with SDG&E. Terms of the agreement will not be public for several years under regulations intended to encourage a competitive bulk power market.

The energy pact should count toward aggressive state requirements for increasing the share of electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as wind power, solarenergy  and geothermal energy plants. Investor-owned utilities and other retailers must procure 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Native American tribal officials remain concerned about artifacts as well as the basic visual intrusion on a landscape tied to the creation stories of several nearby tribes.

"That’s part of these people’s spiritual identity, and yet they want to put up turbines and destroy and interfere with that reverence and the serenity of what the creator gave them," said John Bathke, a historic preservation officer for the Quechan Indian Tribe.

"We’re going to pursue every avenue open to us to fight this," he said.

In recent days, the Viejas band of the Kumeyaay hired teams of forensic dogs and expert handlers to inspect portions of the wind project site for possible human remains at cremation sites, Viejas tribal spokesman Robert Scheid said. Results of the survey were still being compiled, he said.

"You can expect more human remains to be found because there are such big gaps between (the developer’s) survey points," he said. "And we’re about to prove that point."

BLM officials say nearly nearly 2,300 acres were excluded from the project because of concerns about cultural resources. The number of turbines was reduced from 155 to 112 to avoid blocking views that are important to the tribes. The agency conducted four site visits and dozens of consultation meetings with representatives of 10 tribes.

"We understand that they have those concerns with regard to consultation," said Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for the BLM in Sacramento. Federal policy on tribal consultation, she said, "doesn’t necessarily require agreement all of the time."

 Morgan Lee, www.utsandiego.com