On Dec. 14, 2012, Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) sued Ormat Technologies over a replacement project for the Mammoth Pacific geothermal power plant near the State Route 203 junction.
On Feb. 14 of this year, the Mono County Superior Court resolved the case in Ormat’s favor.
According to Bob Sullivan, Ormat Vice President of Business Development, the aim of the M-1 replacement project is to update a facility that has been running since 1984. “The plant was the first of its kind,” he said; “there’s been a lot of innovation since then.”
Sullivan explained that in order to update the facility, Ormat plans to build a new, “M-1” facility 200 feet away in a safer and less visible location. The new and old facility would run simultaneously for up to two years, until the new facility was completed. The old facility will then be taken offline and demolished.
Heidi Bethel, Ormat Public Relations Officer, clarified that the replacement project does not propose any new drilling or resource development. Geothermal extraction from the site would remain the same.
Ormat Technologies considered the replacement project a simple permitting issue. Both the Mono County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission approved the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) in 2012.
Then LIUNA entered the picture.
LIUNA “effectively turned this simple project into a three year saga,” said Sullivan. The Labor Union alleged concerns that the FEIR had failed to properly address the project’s release of toxic air contaminants, volatile organic compounds, and geothermal overdraw, as well as the project’s effect on the local mule deer population and the nearby Hot Creek buffer zone.
“Our reputation is very important to us, especially in a small area,” said Sullivan, who lived for many years in Mammoth Lakes. “Being sued; allegations of improper analysis … If anything, the analysis was done at an even higher level than CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] requires.”
Sullivan explained this shift to strenuous analysis is the result of labor unions like LIUNA, and California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), suing renewable energy projects in the hopes of holding up those projects and forcing a negotiation with developers to employ union laborers.
This “greenmail” has spread all over the state, affecting projects large and small, Sullivan said. “Because of greenmail, [environmental] analyses are frequently done at a higher level,” he said. “We have to assume we will be sued. The standard now, including for people doing the analysis, is to win a lawsuit.”
And while Ormat has won this lawsuit, Sullivan pointed out that LIUNA has 60 days to appeal the decision. “Not only does this slow us down, but it makes projects more problematic,” he said.
Sullivan noted that in the time it took to fight LIUNA, “We’ve built and put online three projects in Nevada that provide over 80 MW of renewable energy.” He attributed this success to the fact that Nevada has yet to see a case of greenmail.
As for LIUNA’s alleged concerns about toxic emissions and the impact of the M-1 project on local mule deer and the Hot Creek, Sullivan remained adamant that both concerns were unfounded.
In fact, according to the Liebersbach, Mohun, Carney & Reed Responding Brief, the technology employed in the operation of the new plant would reduce fugitive emissions such as volatile organic compounds by over 50 percent when compared to the existing plant.
Mono County Economic Development Head Dan Lyster agreed. “We’re always concerned about environmental impacts,” he said. “I think we’ve been pretty diligent and pretty demanding of the developers. [Ormat] is probably more highly regulated than any other geothermal plant in the state.”
“The [M-1] project will ultimately be beneficial from an environmental standpoint,” he concluded.
As for the mule deer, “[California Department of Fish and Wildlife wildlife analyst] Tim Taylor and the Department of Fish and Wildlife didn’t have any objections to the project,” Sullivan said. He added that LIUNA’s expert on deer migration never visited the site of the proposed facility to conduct a study.
Because of this, LIUNA’s expert reported that the proposed plant site was a “spring holding area” for the Round Valley Deer Herd; a place where deer regain condition lost over the winter. But according to the Brief “The spring holding area is in fact 20 airline miles away and thousands of feet lower in Round Valley, most of which is in another county, as anyone familiar with the area knows and as the evidence shows.”
The Brief stated that the geothermal plant property is a movement corridor rather than a feeding ground. The M-1 replacement would not disturb 80 percent of that corridor.
Regarding LIUNA’s allegations that the project could impact Hot Creek, Sullivan noted that the replacement building would not increase in withdrawals from the geothermal resource, therefore the impact to the aquifer would not change.
As the Brief concluded: “In light of the evidence in the record, it must be asked: What in the world is the problem for four members of a labor union who live 40 miles from the project site?”
Now that the lawsuit has concluded, Lyster said the Planning Department can move forward with the permit.
However, Sullivan said that Ormat would have to wait out the 60 days to decide whether it will proceed with the replacement project. Moreover, Ormat will likely be facing another lawsuit from LIUNA and CARE, as well as the Mammoth Community Water District, over its proposed Casa Diablo IV project.
The Casa Diablo project would include the construction of a new, 40-megawatt geothermal power plant, up to 16 new production and injection wells. Sullivan said that the lawsuit should come forward in the next few months.
With three years of investment in an aging facility to keep it to operational standards during the lawsuit, and with an additional lawsuit looming on the horizon, Sullivan said Ormat will have to decide whether to proceed with its projects in the Mammoth area or take its capitol elsewhere.
“It’s not a win-win,” said Sullivan of the Court’s decision; “the project is still in limbo.”