By SCOTT SONNER, Associated Press
RENO, Nevada (AP) – Conservationists and tribal leaders are suing the U.S. government for blocking construction of two geothermal plants in the high desert of northern Nevada that they say are destroying a sacred hot spring and marginalizing a rare toad of the abyss could become extinction.
The lawsuit filed by the Center for Biodiversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe said the project would transform an “unspoiled and unique place of ecological and spiritual value” into an industrial site.
It is the most recent public land dispute pitting green energy production against potential damage to wildlife habitats or cultural resources in the largest U.S. gold producing state, where legal challenges have traditionally been directed against things like hard rock mining .
Environmentalists across the country have rallied around President Joe Biden’s ambitious renewable energy agenda, which includes solar, wind and geothermal production.
Geothermal power plants pump water out of the earth to produce steam to generate electricity. The deeper they drill, the warmer the water. The power plants cause significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than plants that burn natural gas or coal.
The lawsuit, filed on December 15, accuses the Bureau of Land Management of illegally approving Ormat Technologies Inc.’s project in Dixie Meadows, about 100 miles east of Reno, without the required environmental analysis.
The agency is also said to be violating the Law Restoring Religious Freedom.
Bureau spokesman Chris Rose said the agency had no comment on the litigation.
A judge has scheduled a hearing in the Reno District Court on January 4th to consider the group’s subsequent motion for an injunction to temporarily block the first construction work, which Ormat was due to begin on January 6th.
Formed by natural springs, Dixie Meadows is a critical wetland ecosystem in a desert oasis home to the Dixie Valley toad, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, the lawsuit says.
The Biden government approved the project last month, although the center’s petition to list the toad as an endangered species in the US is pending before the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The center is the same group that won an endangered species list for a rare plant at the site of a proposed lithium mine 225 miles (362 km) southeast of Reno earlier this year. Lithium is a key component of batteries for electric vehicles, a core part of Biden’s energy strategy.
“We strongly support renewable energies when they are in the right place, but a project like this one threatening sacred sites and endangered species is definitely the wrong place,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the center, of the geothermal facilities .
Tribal leader Cathi Tuni said the ancestors of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone had lived in the Dixie Valley area for thousands of years and long recognized the hot springs as “a sacred place for healing and reflection.”
âThe United States has made repeated promises to honor and protect indigenous holy sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project on almost our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words, âshe said.
Reno-based Ormat filed a dispute resolution motion on the case on Dec. 20, citing its $ 68 million investment over 10 years in the project that could be jeopardized by delays.
“Even a few weeks delay in building this project can spell disaster for the financial viability of the project,” the company said, referring to a December 2021 deadline in its private electricity production contracts.
“This exceptionally long and thorough review period took years longer than expected and was several years longer than most other state-approved Ormat projects, which have generally taken around two years to approve,” said Paul Thomsen, Ormat Vice President.
When announcing the project’s approval in November, the office announced that the two 30-megawatt geothermal power plants would help Nevada meet its renewable portfolio requirements, which require the state’s utilities to generate 25% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025 relate.
Donnelly said the company has turned down requests to reconsider plans to begin bulldozing for a 4-acre block and access road on the property and begin construction of the first of two power plants on Jan. 6.
“As a result, we had to take exceptional legal measures to ensure that the massive legal flaws in the permitting process for this project were assessed before the bulldozers went live,” he said in an email to The Associated Press this week.
Copyright 2021 Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.