RENO — Conservationists and tribal leaders are suing the U.S. government to try to block construction of two geothermal plants in Northern Nevada's high desert that they say will destroy a sacred hot springs and could push a rare toad to the brink of extinction. The lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe says the project would turn a "pristine and unique location of ecological value and spiritual significance" into an industrial site.
The Dixie Meadows is pictured in June 2017 in Churchill County. (Photo: Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP)
It's the latest public lands conflict pitting green energy production against potential harm to wildlife habitat or cultural resources in the biggest U.S. gold producing state, where legal challenges traditionally target things like hard-rock mining. Environmentalists nationally have rallied around President Joe Biden's ambitious renewable energy agenda, which embraces solar, wind and geothermal production. Geothermal plants pump water from beneath the earth to generate steam to make electricity. The deeper they drill, the warmer the water is. The power plants produce significantly fewer greenhouse emissions than plants that burn natural gas or coal. The lawsuit filed Dec. 15 accuses the Bureau of Land Management of illegally approving Ormat Technologies Inc.'s project in the Dixie Meadows in Churchill County without the necessary environmental analysis. It also says the agency is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Bureau spokesman Chris Rose said the agency had no comment on the litigation. A judge has scheduled a Jan. 4 hearing in U.S. District Court in Reno to consider the groups' subsequent request for a restraining order to temporarily block initial construction work Ormat planned to begin as early as Jan. 6. Formed by natural springs, Dixie Meadows is a critical wetland ecosystem in a desert oasis that is home to the Dixie Valley toad found nowhere else in the world, the lawsuit says. The Biden administration approved the project last month even though the center's petition to list the toad as a U.S. endangered species is still pending before the Fish and Wildlife Service. The center is the same group that won an endangered species listing earlier this year for a rare plant at the site of a proposed lithium mine 225 miles southeast of Reno. Lithium is a key component of batteries for electric vehicles, a centerpiece of Biden's energy strategy. "We strongly support renewable energy when it's in the right place, but a project like this that threatens sacred sites and endangered species is definitely the wrong place," Patrick Donnelly, the center's Nevada state director, said about the geothermal plants. Tribal Chairperson Cathi Tuni said the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone's ancestors have lived in the Dixie Valley region for thousands of years and long recognized the hot springs as "a sacred place of healing and reflection." "The United States has repeatedly promised to honor and protect Indigenous sacred sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project nearly on top of our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words," she said. Reno-based Ormat filed a motion Dec. 20 seeking intervenor status in the case, citing its $68 million investment over 10 years in the project, which it said could be jeopardized by any delays. "Even a few weeks of delay in construction of this project ... may spell disaster for the financial viability of the project," the company said, pointing to a December 2021 deadline in its private power production agreements. "This exceptionally long and thorough review period took years longer than anticipated, and was several years longer than the majority of other Ormat projects permitted on federal land, which have generally taken about two years to permit," Ormat Vice President Paul Thomsen said. The bureau said in announcing the project's approval in November the two 30-megawatt geothermal plants would help Nevada meet its renewable portfolio requirement that the state's utilities procure 25% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025. Donnelly said the company had refused requests to reconsider plans to start bulldozing for a 10-acre pad and access road at the site on Jan. 6 and begin constructing the first of two power plants. "That's why we've had to take extraordinary legal measures, to ensure the massive legal deficiencies in this project's approval process get evaluated before the bulldozers start to run," he said in an email this week to The Associated Press.