Imperial Valley solar developers who sought to cover thousands of acres with solar panels needed construction and electrical workers to make their vision a reality.

That often meant dealing with unions that could provide those workers. The unions were eager to broker so-called project labor agreements, which usually include pacts to hire local workers and to offer certain pay and benefits.

One of those local unions sued developers and Imperial County over the approval of four solar projects collectively known as the Campo Verde and Solar Gen 2 solar farms. They didn’t challenge about 20 others proposed during Imperial County’s solar boom.

In its two lawsuits, the regional Laborers’ International Union of North America alleged violations of CEQA, a law meant to allow opponents to push for changes to a project that lessen its impact on the environment.

I asked Mike Dea, the Laborers’ business agent who oversees the groups’ work on this front, why his union challenged these particular projects. He said his union had gotten involved in a number of environmental and labor-related lawsuits across the state.

Then I asked whether his group had reached labor deals with the developers behind the solar projects his group sued over.

“I didn’t get a project agreement at Solar Gen or at Campo Verde,” Dea said. He said he wanted to review the issues tied to those cases and promised later on to explain why his union challenged those particular projects and the benefits to the union and the environment that came as a result.

Afterward, Dea failed to respond to numerous messages and calls. A spokesman for Arizona-based First Solar, the company that built the two projects, declined to comment.

The Laborers’ union lawsuits came amid a boom of construction and electrical jobs tied to large-scale solar projects in a county where the unemployment rate at the time hovered around 30 percent.

Union leaders were eager to nab work for their members as thousands of acres of Imperial County farmland were cleared and blanketed with solar panels.

They had lots of success.

From 2012 to 2013 alone, the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ chapter reported its Imperial County ranks had grown from just 60 members to more than 800. The group attributed the spike to solar projects.

The regional Laborers’ International Union of North America also touted the hours of work big solar farms brought their members.

Yet the unions didn’t always support the same projects.

The IBEW, for example, publicly hailed the projects the Laborers’ union challenged as being good for workers and the environment.

Johnny Simpson, who leads IBEW’s San Diego and Imperial Counties chapter, said his union had so-called project labor agreements with First Solar to ensure his workers would be hired for electrical jobs.

“We do a lot of work with First Solar,” Simpson said. “They run a good clean job and everybody gets paid properly.”

Both unions were supportive of Folsom-based 8minutenergy Renewables, which has pursued more solar projects in Imperial County than any other developer.

Laborers’ union business manager John Smith “built a strong relationship with 8Minitenergy Renewables (sic), a leading independent developer of projects who utilized Laborers for much of its work,” the group wrote in a 2014 newsletter.

The Laborers’ union never filed suit over any of that company’s projects.

In the Laborers’ suits against the Campo Verde and Solar Gen 2 projects, the union and a community group that joined in one of the suits alleged violations of the county’s general plan, a failure to properly analyze agricultural impacts and adequately assess how the projects might affect burrowing owls in the area, among other concerns.

An Imperial County Superior Court judge ultimately upheld the county’s approval of the Campo Verde project in October 2013.

The union’s attorney requested that the group’s Solar Gen 2 lawsuit be dismissed in August 2012.

Dea did not respond to questions about whether the union or the local community benefited from a settlement deal following that dismissal, which came just two months after the Solar Gen 2 lawsuit was filed.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Imperial County’s employment rate at the time of the lawsuits was around 30 percent. Its unemployment rate was around 30 percent.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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