NextEra's US$1B, 250-MW Genesis Solar project near desert outside Blythe, California--backed by US$825M DOE loan--faces delay, cancellation due to deadly distemper outbreak among kit foxes, discovery of prehistoric human settlement on work site

BLYTHE, California , February 13, 2012 () – A major Southern California solar energy project could be delayed or even canceled following a deadly outbreak of distemper among kit foxes and the discovery of a prehistoric human settlement on the work site, according to a report Saturday.

The $1 billion Genesis Solar Energy Project near Blythe in the desert east of Los Angeles was on track to start producing power for some 187,500 homes starting in 2014.

But critics tell the Los Angeles Times ( http://lat.ms/wrtgOD) the distemper outbreak and discovery of a possible Native American cremation site show that expedited procedures approved by state and federal regulators failed to protect wildlife and irreplaceable cultural resources. They say the problems could probably have been avoided by more rigorous research and planning.

The 250-megwatt plant was backed by an $825 million Department of Energy loan guarantee. Genesis had hoped to be among the first of a dozen approved solar farms to start operating in Southern California.

An official with Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, the builder of Genesis, told the Times the problems threaten the entire project. If too many acres are deemed off-limits to construction, "the project could become uneconomical," said Michael O'Sullivan, a NextEra senior vice president.

Native Americans, including the leaders of a nearby reservation, and environmentalists are trying to have Genesis delayed or even scuttled.

"The issues facing Genesis underline the notion that if you do something quick and dirty, you are going to wind up with big mistakes and unintended consequences," Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the newspaper.

At least 20 fox dens were excavated as workers tried to scatter the animals. Two kit foxes died at the site in late August, and another carcass was found in October. Ultimately, at least seven foxes died by the time wildlife officials determined that distemper was to blame.

Deana Clifford, a veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game, told the Times she isn't certain the outbreak is connected to Genesis, "but we know that habitat disturbance causes stress, and when animals succumb to stress they become more susceptible to disease."

In November, crews dug up grinding stones lying on a bed of charcoal—possible evidence of an ancient cremation site. In a meeting with Colorado River Indian Tribes, a federally recognized reservation near the site, Bureau of Land Management officials described the discovery as "unprecedented," tribal leaders said.

The remains are protected by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Work has been halted on 400 acres, or one-fifth of the project's total area, while state and federal archaeologists conduct a detailed assessment, according to the Times.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation is demanding that NextEra halt construction until its own experts can investigate.

NextEra officials acknowledged to the Times that in a worst-case scenario, they could decide that they cannot meet the conditions of the company's power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and close down the project.

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