The discovery of what could be prehistoric tribal artifacts at NextEra’s 250-megawatt Genesis solar project in the Riverside East solar zone east of the Coachella Valley has sparked a potential standoff between Native American tribal groups on one side and the Bureau of Land Management and the solar developer on the other.
At issue is whether or not work on the solar thermal plant can continue in the area where the artifacts were found, even if it means NextEra might have to abandon the project all together.
The story starts in mid-November when crews grading land at the solar site found stone artifacts called metates and manos, which are prehistoric grinding tools, laying on a bed of charcoal, according to tribal officials. BLM officials have called the find “unprecedented.”
Since then, the BLM has ordered all work stopped on a 200-acre area of the Genesis site and has been working on a plan that is supposed to ensure any significant archeological finds are preserved but will allow the project to continue. Telephone conferences with stakeholders have also been held as the bureau has tried to hammer out a workable plan.
The details of exactly what was found and what has happened since the discovery have not been made public so far. NextEra files monthly status reports on the project with the California Energy Commission, but the sections on cultural resources were removed from both the November and December reports.
Steve Stengel, NextEra’s spokesman, laid out the company’s position in a statement recently emailed to The Desert Sun.
“During the permitting process for the Genesis Project, the involved agencies anticipated that Native American artifacts could be found during construction and an agreement was signed by two Native American Tribes that defines a process for respectfully treating the artifacts. While some artifacts have been found, no determination has been made that the artifacts are of a village or prehistoric site. At the request of the BLM, construction activities have been temporarily suspended on a small portion of the project site. The remainder of the site is under construction.”
Desert Sun photographer Richard Lui and I visited the Genesis site the end of January, when I asked NextEra officials point blank if any significant cultural artifacts had been found. They fudged the answer, first saying no, then adding that it would depend on who defined what a significant artifact is. They also did not tell us that the BLM had ordered grading stopped on a portion of the site.
At this point, the draft of the plan for handling the site and any artifacts is also confidential, but based on tribal letters raising concerns about it, the basic idea is that NextEra would be allowed to continue work on the site, using a method called controlled grading. That means trucks would continue to grade the land, but only about an inch down at a time, with the dirt sifted for any artifacts.
John Kalish, field manager at the BLM’s Palm Springs office, said Friday afternoon, the plan was close to approval, despite strong opposition from Native American tribes in the area.
Under agreements with the tribes that were required as part of the federal approval for the project, NextEra was supposed to notify them of any archeological finds on the Genesis site within 48 hours. The tribes are also supposed to be consulted on any further plans for handling of such sites.
According to two letters from the Colorado River Indian Tribes to the BLM, this has not happened. In a letter dated Jan. 19, Eldred Enas, chairman of the Colorado River tribes, said they had not been notified until almost two weeks after the find and they have repeatedly stated that they don’t want the site graded; they consider it a spiritual site and they want it left alone.
In both letters they cite a number of agreements and protocols which state that site avoidance is the preferred mitigation process for cultural findings such as the ones at the Genesis site, unless it is unfeasible, which NextEra maintains it is. The plant itself is planned for about 2,000 acres, so cutting it down by 200 acres or more could mean no project.
And because assessment of the site is being carried out primarily by NextEra consultants along with archeologists from the BLM and Energy Commission, Enas said the process may be inherently biased.
“While we do not doubt the integrity of these entities, we believe their interests naturally, and necessarily align with the Project’s continued development and completion. Tribal interests may lie elsewhere,” he wrote.
From the tribes’ point of view, he said, the discovery of the artifacts in and of itself makes the site sacred, and no further evaluation is needed to declare it off limits.
He asks for a much slower process to evaluate the site with a Colorado River tribes expert involved and with face-to-face meetings with BLM officials.
Obviously, this is a story that requires further research and reporting. I will be talking more with NextEra, BLM and tribal officials on Monday.
I will also be catching up on the status of the kit fox survey now underway, which is trying to find the reason for the recent outbreak of canine distemper among foxes on or near the Genesis site. From October to December, seven kit foxes died from the disease — another unprecedented occurrence.