The developer behind the proposed Aramis solar energy plant currently under appeal with the county government has announced plans to seek voluntary state and federal permits as part of a new conservation strategy to address potential wildlife impacts of the project in northern Livermore.
Unveiled on Tuesday, Intersect Power's habitat conservation plan includes pursuing voluntary incidental take permit coverage from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as establishing a conservation easement in an offsite location to make up for possible short-term loss of marginal habitat during construction.
"We're pleased to be able to offer this solution to concerned members of the community and the resource agencies," Marisa Mitchell, principal and head of environmental and permitting for Intersect Power, told the Weekly. "We hope it will encourage those in critique of the project to change their positions."
While the company stands behind the veracity of the environmental impact report and associated mitigation measures prepared for project, the new move aims to serve as an additional step in line with its "very conservative approach" toward protecting biodiversity long-term at the project site, according to Mitchell.
Potential environmental impacts have been among the public criticisms lodged by certain citizen and conservation groups over the 410-acre solar plant and energy storage facility proposed in unincorporated Livermore about two miles north of the city limits.
After receiving approval from East County Board of Zoning Adjustments in November, the Aramis project generated four appeals -- separate challenges from advocacy groups Save North Livermore Valley, Friends of Livermore and Friends of Open Space & Vineyards, in addition to an appeal from Intersect Power over multiple zoning board-imposed conditions of approval.
Representatives from Save North Livermore Valley, a coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmentalists, told the Weekly on Wednesday that they view the new conservation plan as a concession by Intersect Power that demonstrates the project's potential harm to threatened species and habitat loss.
"Intersect's admission that it will respect the law does not change the conclusion of the company's own environmental impact report, which states that the project will impose significant and unavoidable environmental impacts on North Livermore," said Robert Selna an attorney representing the coalition.
The appeal hearings, which have twice been pushed out, are currently on the docket for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting next Thursday (March 4).
But in that time, Intersect Power was hit with a comment letter from the USFWS concluding that the solar project would be "likely to result in a take of the federally listed California red-legged frog, Central California tiger salamander and San Joaquin kit fox."
Though Intersect Power contends "no protected species were detected" during already completed biological surveys of the project site while also arguing their renewable energy project could have the potential to actually improve habitat quality for many species, the company will pursue voluntary incidental take permit coverage "out of an abundance of caution," Mitchell wrote in a letter to the Alameda County Community Development Agency on Monday.
"In accordance with the East Alameda County Conservation Strategy, we propose to permanently protect high-quality frog and salamander habitat under a conservation easement in an offsite location to compensate for the temporary loss of marginal habitat at the Aramis site during project construction," Mitchell told the county.
"We hope that our efforts to create and implement a habitat conservation plan in collaboration with the trustee agencies will further serve to ensure a broad range of public support for the Aramis Renewable Energy Project," she added.
The project location, and its potential impact on biological resources including wildlife, are among the reasons the three outside appellants have publicly opposed the project along with environmental groups such as Save Mount Diablo, the Alameda Creek Alliance and Ohlone Audubon Society.
"Intersect has made a reluctant and long overdue admission that, if their project goes forward, the company must follow the law and compensate for harming threatened species and removing their habitat. It is unfortunate that it took Intersect so long to concede that the company would simply follow the law," said Karen Swaim, a local biologist and Save North Livermore Valley supporter who has studied the Aramis project proposal.
"Intersect's turnaround shows the important role that wildlife agencies -- and local volunteer experts like myself -- play in keeping companies honest," Swaim added on Wednesday. "Had watchdogs not sounded the alarm about the proposed project's serious environmental damage, the company would not have compensated for the loss of important, threatened native Californian species and their habitats.
Intersect Power officials, as well as supporters such as the local Sierra Club chapter, argue that the location and positioning were carefully chosen with habitat protection in mind.
"The Aramis project site was selected on its particular plot of land because of its low potential for harm to sensitive species and its high potential for local benefits," Mitchell said.
"There is no potential breeding habitat for California red-legged frog or California tiger salamander on the Aramis project site, and the comprehensive surveys did not detect any frog or salamander individuals. San Joaquin kit foxes also are not present at the site, and haven't been seen in Alameda County for decades," she added.
The new permits and conservation measures would not result in higher customer rates once the solar facility is online, according to Mitchell.
She added that the permit processes -- six to nine months for the state, 12 to 18 months for the federal -- are not expected to delay the start of construction, which was estimated for 18 to 19 months after final county approval.
That timeline could become clearer after the March 4 hearing before the Alameda County supervisors.
"We're looking forward to a robust discussion with members of the Board of Supervisors, and we're expecting spirited participation from members of the community," Mitchell said looking ahead to next week's hearing.