A new crop has begun to flourish in Imperial County and many groups want in on the harvest.

Unions, environmental groups and even farmers reaped cash settlements and jobs out of a solar boom that’s converted thousands of acres of Imperial County farmland into solar projects.

They used the state’s premier environmental law as leverage.

Two environmental groups and farmers who joined in their environmental lawsuits walked away with cash settlements. And one union sued over two projects whose developers hadn’t agreed to sign project labor agreements with its members.

CEQA, the state environmental law, gives Californians the ability to weigh in on projects and push for changes that benefit the environment. And as we’ve seen here and across the state, it’s also convenient ammunition for opponents who don’t like a project or the developers behind it, or who may want something from developers eager to start construction.

In Imperial County, a handful of groups used CEQA to extract benefits from large-scale solar projects. Yet it’s unclear whether their lawsuits resulted in project adjustments that benefited the environment.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Here’s what we do know about how CEQA was used against solar projects, and the fallout from those lawsuits.

• San Diego County-based Backcountry Against Dumps and the Protect Our Communities Foundation collectively challenged about a dozen Imperial County solar projects and negotiated $17.2 million in settlements. Most of  the projects still went forward, according to lawsuits the groups have since filed against each other. About half the winnings were set to go to the nonprofits’ bank accounts or their attorney.

• Farmers who opposed or were displaced by the solar projects were set to collect about $5.9 million.

• Backcountry Against Dumps founder Donna Tisdale’s family received $2.24 million to purchase 560 acres of land. That property is now being farmed but Tisdale wouldn’t confirm whether her family’s farming it.

Unions are eager to ink labor pacts with developers that include pledges to hire local workers and set certain pay and benefits.

• The regional Laborers’ International Union of North America chapter sued developers tied to two solar projects that one union official admitted hadn’t reached project labor agreements with his union. They didn’t sue similar projects pushed by other developers, including 8minutenergy, a company the union’s said hired many of its workers.

We know the environmental lawsuits were leveled by groups who didn’t like the projects they challenged, and that many of those lawsuits ended with payouts.

What we know less about is whether environmental changes came as a direct result of these environmental lawsuits.

I couldn’t find any obvious adjustments to solar projects that can be solely attributed to the lawsuits.

A union official didn’t return repeated requests for comment about projects his group challenged.

Leaders of two nonprofits behind most of the lawsuits are adamant their work led to tweaks that benefited both the environment and farmers. The nonprofits and representatives for the developers they sued told me confidentiality clauses keep them elaborating on specific projects.

What we do know: Settlement talks between one developer and the two nonprofits inspired that developer to request that Imperial County officials cancel its approval of permits for one solar project. That project never re-emerged but a county official noted there might have been another reason for that.

    This article relates to: CEQA, Science/Environment

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    FrontPorch subscriber

    I'm starting to worry about the training of journalists who work at VOSD, especially when I see a headline that says nothing was gained by a lawsuit in which CEQA compliance was challenged, but the parties settled for millions of dollars.  And then I see the statement by the reporter:  "I couldn’t find any obvious adjustments to solar projects that can be solely attributed to the lawsuits."  Did you read the lawsuit?  Did you read the filing papers?  Did you speak with the folks who live in the areas where development is being challenged?  Did you try to find an independent expert who has had experience in this?  Did you talk with the lawyers?  Did you do anything beyond trying solely with your untrained eye  to find "obvious adjustments"?  Oh, yes, you made a phone call to the union and another to the nonprofits.  Even if they had responded, you still have an obligation to find other sources to see if the plaintiffs  or their opponents are telling the truth. 

    VOSD has begun depicting CEQA as merely a convenient tactic to delay developers and enrich plaintiffs, but you are wrong.   A great deal of public land has been  saved in San Diego County and all over California because CEQA exists.  You really should look into the use and history of this important piece of legislation before you pass judgment.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    And here's another one:


    In considering this, it seems the issue is that there was likely grounds for suit but the people who have the money to do it often aren't the environmentalists who oppose this kind of bad development. The worse issue is the insidious changes when major development happens on sparsely populated lands.  Scrublands and Shrublands do a have a value because they support a surprising amount of biomass and sequester carbon.   At the center of this, too, is the lack of study and of understanding about how best to meet green goals.  Unfortunately, this requires a lot of cooperation at all levels of government, and good luck with that.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    I am beginning to wonder what VOSD is trying to accomplish with this repetition of what they have already written about and what is starting to look like a campaign against CEQA.  The "zero result" comment is questionable.  But really, why focus just on the CEQA fails.  A lot of groups opposed the Powerlink and the placement of these projects.  The projects basically got crammed down our throats, primarily because Sempra has a lot more money and connections than the public does.

    We thought the siting was wrong for a lot of the projects.  A recent study said siting is generally terrible everywhere in the country:


    The utilities are fighting solar almost everywhere a lot is going in, except when they own it.  The good that is coming out of this is that it is stimulating innovation to improve solar.  Utilities need to innovate, too, and understand that solar is not going away. 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible. CEQA applies to certain activities of state and local public agencies.Every development project which requires a discretionary governmental approval will require at least some environmental review pursuant to CEQA, unless an exemption applies.At a minimum, an initial review of the project and its environmental effects must be conducted. Depending on the potential effects, a further, and more substantial, review may be conducted in the form of an environmental impact report (EIR). The Guidelines are the regulations that explain and interpret the law for both the public agencies required to administer CEQA and for the public generally. They are found in the California Code of Regulations, in Chapter 3 of Title 14. The Guidelines provide objectives, criteria and procedures for the orderly evaluation of projects and the preparation of environmental impact reports, negative declarations, and mitigated negative declarations by public agencies. CEQA is a self-executing statute. Public agencies are entrusted with compliance with CEQA and its provisions are enforced, as necessary, by the public through litigation and the threat thereof. Source: http://resources.ca.gov/ceqa/more/faq.html

    My very limited understanding of CEQA in context of the foregoing is this: The intent of CEQA is to minimize negative environmental aspects of projects through a notice and review process. The state chose not to identify a state review body (e.g. the Attorney General) to enforce the statute. Instead, individuals are expected to enforce through litigation. This is a method used for other statutes, like disabled accessibility, where governments wanted to avoid a "layer of bureaucracy" to enforce a statue and instead left it to watchdogs and the civil court system. 

    Project like the ones noted here could only be "stopped" or held up by the threat of CEQA suits if they were likely to be out of compliance and thus lose in civil court or if they wished to expedite the project and avoid litigation. Certainly this system allows for abuse, since any person or entity can apparently threaten CEQA action. The alternatives would seem to be no environmental review at all or an environmental review overseen by a state agency that issues permits. Unfortunately, VOSD and other media outlets seem to focus entirely on perceived abuses of the statute. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for thoughtful readers to evaluate CEQA in context. That is, for example, are abuses the norm or anomalies? What are the benefits of CEQA? What are the alternatives? If there were no CEQA, what would be the impact on the environment?

    My observation of CEQA is that there have been a number of bad projects stopped by the CEQA process.