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Whereas renewable energy is much greener than the fossil fuel alternative, that doesn’t mean the companies behind these technologies can’t make environmental mistakes.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday announced a $1.34 million settlement with four solar farms in three states that allegedly violated the Clean Water Act in the way they handled building permits and stormwater.
“Solar power development is a key part of this administration’s efforts to combat climate change,” said Larry Starfield, acting deputy administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. EPA, in a press release. “These settlements send an important message to owners of solar farm project sites that these installations must be planned and integrated in accordance with all environmental laws, including those that prevent the discharge of sediment into local waters during construction.”
Large-scale solar farms are generally much cleaner than fossil fuel burning sites, as noted by the Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS Information Center. In addition to avoiding greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate crisis, they also do not emit common air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. This does not mean, however, that they have no impact on the environment. They take up land that could otherwise be used as pasture or habitat for wild horses, their construction can generate particulate air pollution, the use of water to help generate electricity in dry areas can put additional pressure on water resources and construction processes can lead to both soil compaction and increased runoff and erosion if poorly managed.
It was this last problem that attracted the four solar companies in trouble. All were charged with violating groundwater construction permits mandated by the Clean Water Act, according to the EPA. These permits are intended to prevent construction runoff from polluting waterways, endangering aquatic wildlife and harming drinking water treatment systems.
The four infringing farms in question were
- A facility owned by AL Solar A LLC (AL Solar) near LaFayette, Alabama
- A facility owned by American Falls Solar LLC (American Falls) near American Falls, Idaho
- A facility owned by Prairie State Solar LLC (Prairie State) in Perry County, Illinois
- A facility owned by Big River Solar LLC (Big River) in White County, Illinois
All four were accused of failing to install and maintain sufficient stormwater controls, failing to perform regular inspections, failing to hire qualified people to perform the inspections, and failing to report and resolve the stormwater problems that arose. Additionally, AL Solar and American Falls Solar were further accused of allowing excess runoff to pollute waterways without permission.
The solar companies were all subsidiaries of large financial and investment firms that had used the same contractor for construction. With construction at the Alabama and Idaho sites complete, AL Solar will pay $250,000 in civil penalties to the federal government and $250,000 in civil penalties to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. American Falls will pay $416,500 to the US government.
Both Illinois projects are still under construction, so both Prairie State and Big River have filed consent decrees with the US government and the State of Illinois. In a decree, Prairie State agreed to comply with all state and federal environmental laws and to maintain and comply with permits until construction is complete, as well as to pay $157,500 in civil penalties to the U.S. government and $67,500 to the ‘State. In other, big river also promised to respect permits and pay $122,500 to the federal government and $52,500 to the state.
“While the development of renewable energy holds great promise for combating climate change, the solar energy industry must comply with the Clean Water Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Division of environment and natural resources of the DOJ in the press release. “The proposed regulations demonstrate the Department of Justice’s commitment to requiring those developing these facilities, including site owners, to comply with the law or be held accountable for construction practices that put our waterways at risk. “