Thursday, April 5, 2012

Solar Array Means Savings for Arizona Cemetery

A 30 kilowatt-hour solar array is being installed to provide electrical power to the Southern Arizona Veterans' Memorial Cemetery.

The $170,000 project, with funds provided by the federal and state governments as part of an ongoing "green" program, is expected to be in full operation by the first of April.

Cemetery Administrator Joe Larson said the solar array, being installed by Phoenix-based Sky Renewable Energy, will mean the cemetery's budget of between $1,400 to $1,500 a month for electricity will be saved.

"The grant money came through the Arizona Department of Administration," Larson said.

The amount of power which will be provided will be sufficient for daily operations and none will be sold back to the electrical provider, which is the Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Co-op, he said, adding on days where not enough power is generated by the solar array SSVEC will be the backup source.

Mark Hardison, the company's foreman for the job, said there will be 126 panels on three separate arrays which will fulfill the cemetery's electrical needs.

The amount of power — 30kwh — is enough to provide electricity to five homes, Hardison said.

The project, which began about a month ago, includes a number of specialized equipment as part of the system which will convert alternating current to direct current.

Working with him is one other man, Broc Matthew, who is an apprentice with the company.

Each of the arrays tilt at 30 degrees "to receive the maximum sunshine," Hardison said.

The system is spaced so no shade from one part of the three arrays interferes with another set of panels, thereby degrading the amount of power generated, he said.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Better Business Bureau Offers Advice for Navigating Funeral Process

At an average cost of $7,000, funerals are one of the more expensive purchases consumers ever make.

During such an emotionally-charged time, it can be easy to spend more than might be necessary. The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) offers the following advice for navigating the funeral process.

Most funeral providers offer a variety of package plans that include products and services that are most commonly sold. However, it’s important to remember that no package is obligatory and it’s important to take the time, even though the time to make these decisions may be short, to find the individual products and services that best serve the needs of you and your loved ones. The “Funeral Rule,” enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, requires funeral directors to give you itemized prices in person and, if asked, over the phone.

As outlined by the Funeral Rule:

  • You have the right to choose the funeral goods and services that you want (with some exceptions).
  • The funeral provider must state this “Rule” in writing on the general price list.
  • If state or local law requires you to buy any particular item, the funeral provider must disclose it on the price list, with a reference to the specific law.
  • The funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket that you bought elsewhere.
  • A funeral provider who offers cremations must make alternative containers available.

One way to reduce stress during a time of grief is pre-planning. The National Funeral Directors Association offers a “Bill of Rights for Funeral Preplanning” ( that its members follow. You do not have to prepay for a funeral in order to preplan one, although there may be financial benefits to doing so.

The BBB has Business Reviews on more than 1,350 funeral homes and mortuary service providers across North America, available for free at

For more consumer tips you can trust, visit

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Air Force Admits More Ashes Sent to Landfill Than First Believed

The Air Force confirmed today that as many as 274 sets of cremated partial remains were disposed of in a Virginia landfill, significantly more than had been originally acknowledged when the now-discontinued practice was first reported a month ago.

“We regret any additional grief the past practice may have caused,” said Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services.

Jones briefed reporters after today’s Washington Post article that detailed 274 instances prior to 2008 when the ashes of partial remains were disposed of in a southern Virginia landfill.

The Air Force Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware cremates any partial remains that might emerge after a family has taken possession of their loved one’s body. Jones described the partial remains as usually consisting of small pieces of soft tissue or bone fragments. Families are provided with a form where they can choose to not be notified if such remains emerge and agree to the military disposing of such remains.

From 2003 to 2008, the mortuary would send additional partial remains to a funeral home that would then send them to a contractor for cremation. The ashes would then be disposed of in a southern Virginia landfill. When presented with the forms, families were not told that the disposition meant that the ashes would ultimately be sent to a landfill.

In June 2008, the new head of the mortuary reviewed the practices at Dover and concluded that disposing cremated partial remains at sea was a more fitting option. The “retirement at sea” has since become standard practice for the mortuary.

Asked if the practice prior to 2008 was disrespectful, Jones answered, “It is certainly not the way we would have done it. Looking back, that’s why in 2008 when we saw that practice we changed that practice.”

Jones said 14 urns containing the ashes of partial remains have been taken out to sea aboard a Navy ship for “retirement at sea.” The urns are made of salt so they will dissolve in water. After the briefing, Jones said the 14 urns were all taken out to sea in January 2011 in a group retirement at sea.

The Air Force has established a hotline since the practices at the Dover Mortuary have been in the news. So far, it has received nine calls and only one that dealt specifically with the issue of the ashes being placed at the landfill.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Problems Cast Shadows of Doubt on Solar Project

One of California's showcase solar energy projects, under construction in the desert east of Los Angeles, is being threatened by a deadly outbreak of distemper among kit foxes and the discovery of a prehistoric human settlement on the work site.

The $1 billion Genesis Solar Energy Project has been expedited by state and federal regulatory agencies that are eager to demonstrate that the nation can build solar plants quickly to ease dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming.

Instead, the project is providing a cautionary example of how the rush to harness solar power in the desert can go wrong _ possibly costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and dealing an embarrassing blow to the Obama administration's solar initiative.

Genesis had hoped to be among the first of 12 approved solar farms to start operating in Southern California deserts. To do so, it had to meet certain deadlines to receive federal assistance. The 250-megwatt plant, being built on federal Bureau of Land Management land 25 miles west of Blythe, is backed by an $825 million Department of Energy loan guarantee.

Native Americans, including the leaders of a nearby reservation, are trying to have Genesis delayed or even scuttled because they say the distemper outbreak and discovery of a possible Native American cremation site show that accelerated procedures approved by state and federal regulators failed to protect wildlife and irreplaceable cultural resources.

The problems threaten the entire project, said Michael O'Sullivan, senior vice president of development for Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, one of the largest renewable energy suppliers in North America and the builder of Genesis. The project is to start producing power by 2014. If too many acres are deemed off-limits to construction, "the project could become uneconomical," O'Sullivan said.

Plans for Genesis call for parabolic-trough solar thermal technology to create enough energy to power 187,500 homes. But last fall, as crews began installing pylons and support arms for parabolic mirrors across 1,950 acres of land leveled by earthmovers, the company ran into unexpected environmental and cultural obstacles _ the kind that critics say could probably have been avoided by more rigorous research and planning.

"The issues facing Genesis underline the notion that if you do something quick and dirty, you are going to wind up with big mistakes and unintended consequences," said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Kit foxes became an issue at the site in late August, when two animals died. At the time, biologists assumed the foxes succumbed to dehydration in an area where summer temperatures soar to 118 degrees. On Oct. 5, Genesis crews discovered another fox carcass and sent it to state Fish and Game veterinarians for a necropsy.

At the time, the company was using "passive hazing" strategies approved by state and federal biologists to force kit foxes off the land before grading operations began in November. To scatter the kit foxes, workers removed sources of food and cover, sprinkled urine from coyotes _ a primary fox predator _ around den entrances, and used shovels and axes to excavate about 20 dens that had been unoccupied for at least three consecutive days.

By early November, only three active dens remained, but the foxes using them wouldn't budge, raising the risk of construction delays. The California Energy Commission, which has jurisdiction over the project, scrapped the three-day timetable and said the company could destroy dens that had been vacant for 24 hours.

Five days after making that change, the results of the necropsy came back. The fox found Oct. 5 had died of the first case of distemper ever recorded among desert kit foxes. Ultimately, at least seven kit foxes died.

Deana Clifford, state wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game, said she isn't certain the outbreak is connected to Genesis, "but we know that habitat disturbance causes stress, and when animals succumb to stress they become more susceptible to disease."

State and federal biologists are now trying to prevent the disease from spreading beyond the site. To discourage displaced kit foxes from re-entering the area, electric wires have been installed along the top of waist-high fences originally intended to keep desert tortoises relocated by NextEra from trying to return to their former burrows.

Evidence of a human settlement is of even greater concern to the company. Earthmovers on Nov. 17 churned up grinding stones lying on a bed of charcoal _ possible evidence of an ancient cremation site. In a subsequent meeting with Colorado River Indian Tribes, a federally recognized reservation just east of the work site, Bureau of Land Management officials described the discovery as "unprecedented," tribal leaders said.

The remains are protected by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Work has been halted on 400 acres, or one-fifth of the project's total area, while state and federal archaeologists conduct a detailed assessment.

The discovery did not come as a complete surprise. In 2010 testimony before the state energy commission, archaeologist David S. Whitley warned that Ford Dry Lake, at the southern end of the Genesis site, had been a gathering place for prehistoric people who cremated their dead. Based on surface evidence, at least three locations within the Genesis project area appeared "to represent lake shore village sites that have the potential to contain burials/cemeteries," Whitley said.

To avoid the old lake shore area, NextEra reconfigured the project, moving it about two miles north.

However, the company did not follow customary methods for searching the new site for human remains. Instead of using established but costly and time-consuming procedures, NextEra opted for a new, less exacting search method developed by the state energy commission and the BLM to expedite Genesis and three other desert solar projects.

The energy commission outlined the new method in a Dec. 3, 2009, letter that included a warning: If the search found nothing, but artifacts were discovered later, during construction, the project could be suspended while an exhaustive investigation was performed.

That's what happened. NextEra's search involved digging more than 500 shovel test pits each up to 3 feet deep. It found nothing.

Now the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation is demanding that NextEra halt construction until its own experts can investigate. Eldred Enas, chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, said in a letter to the federal government last month that the discovery of a nestled pair of metates _ stones used to grind acorns, pinion nuts and other staples _ atop a bed of charcoal indicates that it was a cremation site that is "too sacred to disturb."

Separately, a nearby group of Native Americans called La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle is preparing a legal challenge based on the kit foxes and the possible cremation site. Cory Briggs, an attorney representing La Cuna Aztlan, said NextEra received an early warning: "This is the wrong place to build. Instead, they put their foot on the gas pedal in order to get this thing approved and deal with problems later."

The company and regulatory agencies are studying options, which could range from avoiding locations known to contain significant Native American remains to a formal archaeological excavation.

In an interview, NextEra officials acknowledged that in a worst-case scenario, they could decide that they cannot meet the conditions of the company's power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and close down a project that is expected to create 800 construction jobs.

If that were to happen, 80 percent of the project's outstanding loans would be covered by the federal government, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would begin shopping for another renewable energy company that was interested in leasing the property. If there were no takers, the scarred land would be restored with reclamation bond funds, BLM officials said.

Looking ahead, Roger Johnson, deputy director of siting with the state energy commission, said lessons learned from the Genesis project will be included in other high-priority solar facilities.

Jeffrey Lovich, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the challenges facing NextEra are messy reminders of the fact that "peer-reviewed scientific studies to help us tease out the impacts of solar energy development" on the California desert do not exist.

"So there will be very likely be additional surprises as we move forward," Lovich said.