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County give thumbs up to geothermal plant expansion

November 16, 2012

The Eastern Sierra is rich in geothermal resources, but a group of renewable energy union advocates have managed to slow the expansion of the Casa Diablo geothermal plant far longer than expected. This week, the Mono County Supervisors upheld the county planning commissioner's approval of the project, in the face of two appeals by such groups. The groups can still sue, however, if they so chose.

The Mono County Board of Supervisors soundly rejected an appeal of a plan to expand the Casa Diablo geothermal plant Tuesday, after two out of area (mostly) union advocacy groups appealed the project during an almost five-hour public hearing.

It’s the second time the groups have been in Mono County in the past few months. On Oct. 22, the county planning commission approved the project and recommended it to the county supervisors for approval.
The groups filed an appeal shortly after and on Tuesday, they came armed for a fight.

They got one.

The supervisors and county staff, one after the other, threw water on the groups’ claims that the environmental analysis done by the county was not adequate.

“It’s illuminating to me that the air district didn’t have a problem with this, yet you do,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston, when one group, called Californians For Reliable Energy, or CURE, said the expansion of the plant would create hazardous ozone pollution.

“We’ve heard all this before when we did this same process years ago,” said Supervisor Duane “Hap” Hazard.

“We heard it would be like Bhopal, we heard it would destroy Hot Creek, we heard it all in 1984 (when the original plant was developed) and now, we know. This plant has been a good neighbor.”

County counsel Stacey Simon was clear that she believed the county had done an excellent job doing the environmental analysis required by the state.

“When it comes to our CEQA work (California Environmental Quality Act) we’ve had excellent consultants who have done excellent work,” Simon said.

“The problem with CEQA is it’s subjective,” she said. “Could someone poke holes in the work, even if we feel it was fully adequate? Yes. But have we done due diligence? Yes.”

At stake is an expansion of the plant that will increase efficiency and add another several megawatts of capacity to the big, Ormat Pacific plant located on the east side of U.S. 395 on Casa Diablo Road.

It was supposed to have been a routine expansion, and it moved through the past several years with very little controversy—until several non-local groups, claiming to be unionized renewable energy plant workers, objected.

These out-of-area groups claimed they were concerned for the environment and dumping hundreds of pages of said objections into the mandated state environmental review document process.

But research by the county and the MT shows the groups have used the same techniques before at other planned renewable energy power facilities, with the seeming intent to pressure applicants into using unionized workers, and they didn’t, they’d face more costly delays.

According to a Feb. 5 article in the Los Angeles Times, CURE’s tactic of challenging and/or appealing such renewable energy projects is common in the region.

“Since 2000, CURE has participated in environmental hearings for all 12 renewable energy projects proposed for the Southern California desert, filing more than 1,300 requests for data about water, air pollution, and endangered animal species, according to the California Energy Commission,” the article stated.
“To date, the building trades council has signed contracts to build one geothermal project and seven solar projects, and CURE has dropped objections to those plants. CURE has suits pending against two developers that did not sign labor agreements, and it is no longer pursuing claims on two other projects.”

Other newspaper articles have stated that the same groups also tried the same tactic with a proposed geothermal plant in Imperial County this week—and were blocked by the county supervisors.

But with a 30-day timeframe with which to file a lawsuit (after the county files a “notice of determination” within five days of Tuesday’s decision), it’s now a waiting game to see what the two groups will do, if anything.
“They’ve been after Ormat long before this project,” said Simon. “It’s not Mammoth’s 20 or so workers, it’s the hundred of workers they are trying to unionize.”

Calls to CURE were not returned before press time.

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