Manzanzar National Historic Site supporters are fighting back in an effort to prevent the construction of a 1,200-acre solar ranch across the highway from the former World War II internment camp.
The Manzanar Committee launched a formal letter-writing campaign Dec. 5, urging Los Angeles and Owens Valley residents to go on record in opposition to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s proposed solar project which would be located in direct line of sight with the National Historic Site.
In a press release issued last week, Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey said the proposed solar ranch “represents new heights for LADWP’s insensitivity” toward Mazanar, which LADWP tried to prevent from becoming a federally designated National Historic Site in 1991.
“The very idea that any land in or around the Manzanar National Historic Site could be used for a massive generating facility that would not harm the ongoing efforts to preserve and understand the tragedy of justice that occurred there is simply beyond insensitive, and it’s not just insensitive to the Japanese American community, the survivors of America’s concentration camps and their families,” Embrey said. “That gross insensitivity extends to the efforts of the National Park Service, and others who have worked so hard to bring this brief, but essential, part of American history to light.”
LADWP will be accepting letters and emails as part of the current public comment period for its Draft Environmental Impact Report on the project until 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20. That deadline has already been extended twice at the urging of the public.
LADWP, meanwhile, takes exception to the Manzanar Committee’s characterization of how it chose its project location – categorically denying an insensitive or disrespectful approach to Manzanar.
“Absolutely not,” said LADWP Director of Power Systems Planning and Development Randy Howard. “I’m personally surprised at the level of their comments.”
The site was chosen, he said, for its proximity to existing transmission lines and because LADWP could create the “least impact on the Owens Valley” at that location.
That includes visual impacts, Howard said. The project team believes the solar ranch would be far enough away, and low enough to the ground, to have no significant visual impacts on Manzanzar.
The utility released its Draft EIR in late August, which marked the first time it formally identified the 1,200 acres east of Manzanar as not only a possible site for its solar ranch but the preferred site.
LADWP had previously announced its solar ranch project in 2010 as a renewable energy production endeavor meant to satisfy state law and meet the utility’s own objectives for transitioning to “greener” energy. The project was announced via a Notice of Preparation that was followed by a public scoping period for two possible sites near Lone Pine.
Thus it came as a surprise to anyone following the project when the Draft EIR released three years later contained an analysis for a site not previously identified.
The new, preferred Southern Owens Valley site is six miles southeast of Independence, 10 miles north of Lone Pine, four miles west of U.S. 395 with Manzanar Reward Road running along the southern perimeter and Mazourka Canyon Road three miles to the north. Essentially, right across the highway from Manzanar. It is also adjacent to LADWP’s current transmission lines – one of the features making it appealing to the utility.
It is here, below the Inyo Mountains and within view of Manzanar, that LADWP wants to erect 1-2 million photovoltaic panels, a 3,000 square-foot maintenance building and 300,000 square-foot substation – not an actual building, Howard explained, but a designated area for low-profile materials and supplies.
The project also calls for lighting at night, fencing, access roads and clearing the entire 1,200 acres of vegetation in an area prone to wind storms.
Manzanar Superintendent Inafuku and Manzanar National Historic Site have also objected to the project location within the historic viewshed, citing irreversible destruction of the cultural landscape and a negative impact on the visitor experience as a whole. Manzanar attracts an average of 82,000 visitors a year who contribute an estimated $8.4 million to the local economy.
David Lathrop, a spokesperson for the National Park Conservation Association, a well-funded lobbying group, has also gone on record opposing the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch.
“The importance of maintaining and enhancing the physical characteristics of the Manzanar National Historic Site cannot be downplayed or overlooked,” Embrey said in the press release. “One of the most powerful parts of Manzanar is the unobstructed view, and that many of the structures, gardens and other features of the World War II American concentration camp have not been bulldozed over or destroyed by ‘development.’”
According to Embrey, even though LADWP has supported the Manzanar Pilgrimage for years, the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch is part of the utility’s “long and checkered history regarding the establishment of the Manzanar National Historic Site.
“LADWP opposed efforts to establish a National Historic Site at Manzanar, arguing instead for a local memorial park,” he explained. “Even as late as 1991, they continued their efforts to prevent the establishment of a National Historic Site under the auspices of the National Park Service.”
Howard said he could not or would not speak to what may or may not have happened in the past, but reiterated that LADWP’s project team chose the current 1,200-acre site because it “was deemed to be one of the best locations for the least impact.” He added that because most everywhere in Inyo County is beautiful, “there are not a lot of ideal locations.”
The result of LADWP’s project, if approved and once fully operational, would be 440 gigawatt hours of clean, renewable energy annually for the City of L.A. According to the Draft EIR, that’s enough energy to power about 75,000 households in L.A. and meet the state’s renewable energy mandates.
At its peak in late 2015, the project would require 350 workers on site, a figure that will be scaled down to a steady 220 workers during the final year of construction.
While it’s been noted the project will bring economic stimulus to Inyo County via 10 new, permanent LADWP wage-paying jobs and a temporary workforce of around 300, its proximity to Manzanar and environmental impacts have proven exceedingly unpopular – as voiced at two local public hearings and several letters to the editor to this newspaper.
Residents have also pointed out the visual impacts from both mountain ranges.
The Inyo County Board of Supervisors, which has no regulatory authority over the project but acknowledges LADWP’s proposal does not comply with the Inyo County General Plan, is meanwhile waiting for L.A. to present a Memorandum of Understanding based on a term sheet the board already approved in September.
The term sheet outlined more than a dozen provisions for both the county and LADWP; essentially, LADWP will provide the county with funding, an economic development loan and the aforementioned jobs to offset impacts to county services, and in exchange, the county must agree not to challenge the city’s proposal once the Final Environmental Impact Statement has been released.
For everyone who else who wants to weigh in on the project, see sidebar above right.