Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Is the Production of Geothermal Energy in The Geysers a “Public Nuisance”?

Calpine in The Geysers
On September 15, less than a fortnight after AltaRock Energy halted its geothermal drilling in The Geysers, the Anderson Springs Community Alliance (ASCA), a small but formidable opponent of the AltaRock project, fired another salvo: this time charging the area’s main producer of geothermal energy with a public nuisance.

In a formal complaint and petition addressed to the Board of Supervisors of Lake and Sonoma Counties for “Remedy of Ongoing Public Nuisance from Geothermal Earthquakes Caused by Operations of Calpine Corp./Geysers Power Company, LLC at The Geysers,” ASCA specifically cited a September 5 magnitude 2.8 earthquake as the latest of more than a thousand magnitude 2.0 or higher temblors epicentered within five miles of Anderson Springs since 2000. These, ASCA contends, constitute an ongoing public nuisance. [A link to the complaint will be posted here when it goes online.]

According to the complaint, “Most residents of Anderson Springs were awakened by the jolt and noise of this earthquake; many were frightened and had difficulty going back to sleep.  Over the following 10 minutes, residents were disturbed by the rumblings & noise of numerous smaller earthquakes, most of which did not register on the USGS seismic network.” The September 5 earthquake was “epicentered next to Calpine’s MLM Wellpad by Castle Rock Springs, 1 mile from Anderson Springs (1,300 feet from the closest residence), and at a shallow depth of 1.6 miles (consistent with man-made, geothermal earthquakes).”

ASCA’s cover letter states:

There is now a significant body of qualified, independent scientific evidence about induced seismicity, along with extensive public comments, documentation, and media coverage, demonstrating the extent of problems for residents and their property.  It has become clear that most of these earthquakes are caused by geothermal development activities, and the instrumentation is now adequate to pinpoint their exact location and quantify resulting ground-shaking in Anderson Springs.

Although the impacted communities are primarily in Lake County, Calpine’s operations causing geothermal earthquakes occur both within Lake and Sonoma Counties and are permitted by their respective County planning/community development departments.  We recognize the importance of geothermal power production; we are not against geothermal energy, nor are we seeking to halt geothermal operations.  However, the wastewater disposal needs of Lake and Sonoma Counties, along with the business interests and profit motivations of Calpine Corporation, are being served at the expense of our small community and its residents.

ascaCalifornia Civil Code Section 3480 defines a public nuisance as “one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal.” Complaints of public nuisance most often reference local concerns such as excessive noise, overflowing trash, orCalpine_logo neighborhood blights such as drug selling. To file such a complaint against a major corporation involved in an activity as important as energy generation pits a gnat (ASCA) against an elephant (Calpine).

Calpine could try to defend itself by:

•  casting the temblors as insignificant annoyances that cause little or no damage
•  contending that residents knew about the problem when they moved in
•  demonstrating that the earthquakes had been ongoing for a many years without complaint

Since Calpine supplies a huge amount of energy to Northern California and ASCA has not documented any earthquake-related injuries and no incidents of dramatic property damage, the public nuisance complaint could get treated as a minor attack on an important corporate presence. And if Calpine pays significant taxes to the county governments (undetermined as of this writing), officials may be under tremendous financial pressure to find for the revenue producer over the NIMBY complainants.

ASCA has been researching induced earthquakes for a long time. Its chart of the number of earthquakes with magnitude greater than 2.0 shows a dramatic increase over the last several decades.

andersonsprings-earthquakes

In addition, ASCA’s three-year survey (2002-04) indicates annoyances that may add up to a public nuisance:

•  85% of Anderson Springs residents reported that they or members of their family had been “woken up in the middle of the night by earthquakes.”

•  66% reported that smaller household objects (e.g., pictures, clocks, planted pots, knickknacks, etc.) had been moved or disturbed.

•  56% reported problems with doors/windows not closing properly due to earthquakes.

•  54% reported that “the earthquakes affect[ed] me or members of my family emotionally.”

Jeffrey Gospe, president of the ASCA, emailed me on September 24, “We are confident that the California Civil Code and its case history support our community’s rights to abatement of this public nuisance, and we hope that Lake/Sonoma Counties and Calpine will be proactive about remedying the situation without the necessity of court proceedings.”

Two previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2) described the EGS project that AltaRock had undertaken in The Geysers, a geologically active formation in California’s Mayacamas Mountains of Lake and Sonoma Counties. The Geysers is the world’s most productive geothermal field. A third post noted the halting of that project.

With energy such a prominent public and governmental concern, it is surprising that local news coverage of AltaRock, ASCA, Calpine, etc., has been almost non-existent. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is MIA. Only the weekly Lake County News and the New York Times (which owns the Press Democrat) track this story with any consistency.

3 Comments

  1. Ladd Biggerstaff says:

    NIMBY = selfishness

  2. To whom it may be interested,
    My name is Luisa Jimenez. I am living in a very rural area south of Munich (Germany), called Haunshofen. At the moment we are trying to stop the creation of a Geothermal plant in the middle of our forest. We have created our own commitee (or alliance). I will be VERY thankful if someone could make contact with me and tell me your experiences with the Geothermal plant, their effects in the ecology and in the life of your town. We are very concerned about the possible damages in our forest and our homes. I have read here, that you have had some problems as well, but the details (an pictures) are missing. Please feel free to contact me at bi.energiequellen(at)gmx.de. Thanks. Luisa

  3. Gerri Fletcher, Cobb Mtn. CA says:

    Thank you for the information that your your article provides! I am a neighbor of geothermal on High Valley Road in Cobb Mountain, in an area north of the Anderson Springs community. I had no idea that the ASCA was exposing geothermal as a nuisance because of the earthquakes. Mr. Colter, you are right in reporting that local papers rarely report on the geothermal impacts to the environment and the community. My High Valley community has been significantly impacted by the illegal activities of our neighborhood geothermal power plant, Bottle Rock Power. We are all very concerned with the air and water pollution from H2S, and the array of hazardous chemicals the neighborhood is getting exposed to, caused by geothermal operations. Living next to a geothermal operation is like living next to an active volcano, the ground shakes, the air stinks with unknown acrid chemicals; you don’t know how it affecting your health for the short or long term. And, Ladd Biggerstaff, I am not a NIMBY, I was here prior to the the power plant, and if they really were a clean green energy source, I wouldn’t be commenting but it just isn’t so….

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