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Environmental groups ask BLM to table public comment period for solar project amid pandemic

Source: 
Las Vegas Sun

Mar. 27--The Bureau of Land Management opened a 45-day public comment period last week for a proposed solar plant project 32 miles west of Las Vegas. The Yellow Pine Solar Project is one of several of the Trump administration's America First Energy Plan, an "all of the above" strategy supporting more energy development on public lands.

Some environmental groups say this process should be temporarily halted, as most of the public's attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. The BLM is exploring the possibility of virtual town halls.

"You're seeing agencies like the Department of Interior or the Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources just plowing ahead, business as usual, like nothing has changed," said Patrick Donnelly, state director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The average member of the public is scared to death for their lives and for their families and for their jobs right now. Participating in a public comment process ... is the furthest thing from anyone's mind."

The center, along with several other environmental groups including Basin and Range Watch and the Conservation Lands Foundation, are asking the Department of Interior to temporarily suspend all major policy changes, public comment periods, changes to regulations and oil and gas lease sales.

"Commenting on Interior Department proposals for major policy changes, changes to regulations, and oil and gas leases requires concerted focused attention and resources that many people who normally engage in these processes simply do not have right now," they wrote in a group statement to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said the agency is currently in the process of exploring new options to allow the public to participate in the comment process.

"Continuing our service to the public while doing our part to address COVID-19 is very important," she said. "We are aware of our inability to hold in-person public meetings in the current conditions. We are in early discussions evaluating other options, including a potential virtual open house or a potential extension on the review period."

The Yellow Pine project may pose an environmental threat to the region's threatened desert tortoise population, wildlife advocates say, echoing similar concerns over another, much larger solar project across 7,100 acres in the Mojave Desert just south of the Moapa River Indian Reservation. The project, dubbed Gemini Solar, could generate 690 megawatts of electricity, powering 400,000 Las Vegas homes but at the cost of damaging the desert tortoise population and threatening rare desert plants that inhabit the 11-square-mile site.

Although the size of the Yellow Pine project is much smaller than Gemini Solar, now a third of what was originally proposed -- 9,000 acres -- and the environmental assessment proposes alternative mitigating strategies that might be less damaging to the environment, wildlife groups say any disruption to desert tortoise habitat could be detrimental, and that the public comment period should be taken seriously.

"No matter how one feels about a certain project, this looks like they are using the COVID-19 crisis to reduce the amount of comments they will get," said Kevin Emmerich co-founder of the Basin and Range Watch.

The public comment period ends on May 4. Comments can be made by emailing [email protected] or calling 702-515-5023. Comments can also be mailed to Yellow Pine Solar Project; Attn: Herman Pinales; BLM Las Vegas Field Office; 4701 N. Torrey Pines Drive; Las Vegas, NV 89130.

The BLM will announce more details on the possibility of virtual town halls at least 15 days in advance, Cannon said. To look at the environmental assessment and other relevant documents, visit here.

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(c)2020 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)

Visit the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.) at www.lasvegassun.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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