Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.
In the past two weeks, I got scared. There is no other way to put it. The stories of those who are sick. The hospital workers worried about rationing scarce resources. The grief of not being able to visit loved ones. The economic disruption. The insecurity. The looming sense that the worst is still yet to come. It’s palpable the few times I’ve left my house to walk my dog or go out on a run.
Even as our focus turns to reporting on the pandemic, I am committed to continue writing this newsletter and about decisions that affect the environment in Nevada and across the West.
To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here. As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting (or could affect) you. Email me with any tips at [email protected]. Message me for my Signal or PGP.
Parks shut down: Federal land managers announced the closure of parks and recreation areas across the state this week. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas closed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Here’s a more detailed post from the Southern Nevada Climbers Coalition urging its members to abide by the restrictions. And after visitors flocked to Lake Mead on Saturday, officials also announced the closure of facilities.
- So what can you do? As overused as it is, the phrase “think globally, act locally” keeps coming to mind. It is tempting to want to travel to faraway public land, thinking that it is remote. But when people travel far, they often stop at gas stations or grocery stores. In doing so, they risk exposing small towns to coronavirus and populations where just a few positive cases could overwhelm the local health care system. This High Country News essay put it best: “I believe in the right to be outside, but at this moment it shouldn’t be exercised through visitor centers and bottlenecks. Forget the parks; seek out the spaces in between, the backyards and alleys. It’s a great time to explore an irrigation ditch or the woods at the edge of town — to see what’s around you. Be as local as you can.”
Solar industry lobbies Congress: A trade group for the solar industry is seeking relief from Congress as investment dries up with an economy on an effective halt throughout much of the country, including in Nevada. The solar industry has seen a reduction in demand, especially in residential solar installations, with cancellations up. As Axios reported this week, the Solar Energy Industries Association sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to extend and make adjustments to a renewable tax credit. NPR reported that solar companies have had difficulty getting their proposals included, as the Trump administration sought to bolster the oil industry.
- Ultimately, the $2 trillion stimulus package did not include any language about the solar industry. But renewable energy businesses are still looking for congressional action. Bob Keefe, who directs the business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) said in a statement that “attention must turn to repowering America’s economy. And if federal and state lawmakers want to get America back to work, one of the most proven ways is with policies that expand America’s fastest-growing job sector – clean energy – and support the nearly 3.4 million workers employed in every state and county across the country.”
- What is the industry looking at? They are worried about cancelled residential orders. Supply chain disruptions. Investment in projects. The industry’s trade association writes on its website that “early estimates suggest that our industry could see significant losses this year and that some sectors, including the residential sector that employs tens of thousands of Americans, could see as much as 50% reduction in jobs.”
Something I’m watching: The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection wrote a letter last week pushing back on some findings made by the Atlantic Richfield Company, or ARCO, in an investigation of the groundwater plume at the Anaconda Copper Mine near Yerington. The study is important because it determines to what extent the former mine — and by extension ARCO (the responsible party) — is responsible for elevated levels of uranium in a groundwater plume in an aquifer used by agricultural operations and the Yerington Paiute Tribe. As we reported last year, the company had tried to argue that the mine is responsible for less groundwater pollution than was previously modeled. In the letter last week, state regulators told the company that the study was not “an approvable document due to multiple deficiencies as well as material defects in some sections of the” report. The company now has to make changes and submit a new report.
- In a statement, a spokesperson for the state agency said “NDEP will continue to hold [ARCO] accountable for meeting all requirements necessary to fully remediate the site. As part of its core mission, NDEP is committed to protecting the natural environment and fostering a vibrant, healthy community for the benefit of all current and future Mason Valley residents.” ARCO did not respond to an email Wednesday requesting comment.
Basin, range. Basin, range. Two earthquakes hit different sides of the Great Basin last month. One near Salt Lake City and another near Carson City. Discover Magazine explains why.
A hydropower project: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a preliminary permit for an energy storage project at Pyramid Lake that would include the construction of a reservoir in environmentally sensitive land. Much of the project would be on land belonging to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, which has objected to the proposal. Although the preliminary permit would put the developer first-in-line to build the project, it would not give the developer the rights to conduct any on-site surveys without the express permission of the tribe. Here’s one strange thing: The project would be on tribal land, and the tribe does not want the project. But it could not do anything to stop the regulatory commission’s preliminary permit approval (see this Twitter exchange). The commission does not consider land ownership at this stage.
Getting a comment in: The Nevada Division of Forestry said this week that it was going to postpone public comment workshops discussing the status of the Tiehm’s buckwheat, an endemic plant threatened by potential lithium mining. From the statement on March 20: “Given the evolving circumstances surrounding COVID-19, as a precaution, the Nevada Division of Forestry will be postponing its public workshops.” The move came amid a call from the Center for Biological Diversity to cease public comment as people grapple with the coronavirus crisis.
- Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the group, wrote a letter to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources following the tentative approval of three water pollution control permit renewals for mining projects and their release for public comment. Donnelly called on the department to delay public comment for the permits. “It is impossible to credibly say that the public will have an opportunity for involvement in these permitting processes while there is a public health emergency ongoing,” he wrote in the letter dated March 17.
- Although more public facing meetings, like the buckwheat workshop, might be placed on hold, some government functions are probably going to continue on a case-by-case basis. When asked about the letter, a spokesperson for the department referred to an executive order from Gov. Steve Sisolak on Sunday that offered guidance to public bodies on how to continue holding meetings and provide for public comment.
Washoe County wants to open more land to development: Last week, we published a story about the conflicts around a proposal to open federal public land to development near Reno and Sparks. The proposal would aim to protect land with conservation designations in the northern part of the county (some to the frustration of ranchers). Here’s the story laying all of that out. At this point, it’s hard not to imagine ways the COVID-19 outbreak could affect the trajectory of this proposal. County and city officials are now focused on other priorities. Everyone — developers and local governments — expect to see an economic hit. Are the bill’s supporters going to need to revisit what growth boundaries are appropriate? The story raises a variety of questions about sprawl, many encapsulated in this Reno Gazette Journal op-ed. Water is still a big question, though sewer might be an even bigger one. Not to mention other services: fire, schools, etc…
Update: This story was corrected at 8:49 a.m. on March 26 to indicate the water pollution control permits referenced in the newsletter were not given final approval. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection has, at this time, issued a tentative decision to renew the permits for the three mines and is soliciting public comment. The story has also been corrected to reflect that ARCO is responsible for cleaning the Anaconda Copper Mine, but it is no longer the owner.