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Letter: Setting the record straight on Ormat, BLM

Date:

Submitted by Jason Walters

Having recently read your January 20th, 2023 article “Ormat pushes back against Burning Man after lawsuit against BLM,” I would like to set the record straight on what is happening in my community. I am a seventeen year resident of the Black Rock Desert, including living twelve of those years in the town of Gerlach. I own a home here, work here, have a family here, and very much enjoy the friendly, informal lifestyle that this welcoming town affords. I attended three of the community meetings that Ormat Technologies has sponsored here, and listened carefully to what they had to say. I also attended the recent community meeting sponsored by the Burning Man Project, Friends of the Nevada Wilderness, and Friends of Black Rock/High Rock, and listened to carefully what they had to say as well.

Having done all of these things, I’m with the Burning Man Project on the matter of stopping Ormat’s development in Gerlach. And I am not alone. I’ve spent the last week speaking with fellow residents of Gerlach, including many who own homes here, and everyone I’ve spoken to is deeply concerned about what Ormat Technologies is planning on doing right at the edge of our town; an unprecedented undertaking, as they have never developed a site this close to an established community before. And those I’ve spoken with also support Burning Man’s lawsuit, which is aimed at preventing the construction of their proposed power plant “on the sly” via twenty million dollars worth of exploratory drilling on nineteen sites around our town; basically, placing the infrastructure for the plant in place without having to go through the normally required regulatory processes. In fact, the entire idea that they would spend that much money on “exploratory drilling” is absurd, and nobody here believes it. Ormat knows very well what they will find, as does the BLM, Burning Man, and we locals; which is that the land around and under Gerlach is extremely geothermally active and suitable for development. 

You see, Gerlach was founded in 1906 by Mr. Gerlach, who convinced the Western Pacific Railroad to put a station here so that he could herd his cattle onto rail cars bound for a slaughterhouse in Stockton. This site was selected specifically because there was pasturage and surface water created by the geothermal system which underpins the entire area. The town then grew up around that station, and is laterally built on soft, wet ground; so much so that two of the buildings on our main street have their own leech fields and pumping systems to deal with steaming water erupting beneath them! 

My concerns – which are broadly shared by my neighbors – fall into three distinct categories. First, none of us moved here to live in an industrial park; which is exactly what we will be living in if Ormat gets an opportunity to begin drilling. We don’t want the light, the noise, or to have the local hot springs and wetlands dry up. Additionally, all of these changes will effect property values for local home owners; a perhaps incidental matter to outsiders, but not as you can imagine to us. Friends of the Nevada Wilderness have provided satellite imagery detailing what happens to areas immediately surrounding Ormat facilities, and these things are definitively going to be part of the results of the project – no matter what any experts hired by Ormat may say. 

Secondly, we are concerned about our town’s water supply, which comes from two natural springs that flow out of the Granite Mountains on their southern side, and were purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad in 1973. In the meetings I attended, Ormat’s representative indicated that their original plan, now withdrawn but very still very much present in the background, was to build their actual plant disturbingly close to it. Reliable, clean water is extremely important to a small desert town. If you contaminate or destroy the water supply, you kill the town. This is a very real risk based on the experiences of people who own properties with residential wells near existing Ormat facilities, and it is not a risk that anyone should ask us to take. 

Finally, you don’t have to be a geologist to know that pumping and recirculating tens of millions of gallons of water out of a geothermal system that underpins an entire existing town is going to cause significant issues to its building’s foundations. For those of us who live in this community and have invested all of our labor, time, and money into our homes, the prospect of cracked foundations and sinking buildings represents the destruction of our family’s inter-generational wealth, the impoverishment of those too old to work, and the end of our community as, inevitably, residents are forced to leave their ruined homes. If you undermine the buildings, you also kill the town. This is yet another risk we should not be asked to take by anyone, regardless of how noble their greater goals may be.

Finally, I could not help but notice the following specific recent statement from Ormat: “Burning Man’s fear campaign ignores the numerous benefits of geothermal exploration. Should Ormat eventually develop a power plant, not only would it generate 100% renewable energy, it would also bring to the Gerlach community new jobs and enhanced infrastructure, including new roads, power lines, telecommunication, and municipal water systems.” 

This is ironic, as in the meetings I attended with Ormat’s representatives we were told directly and unambiguously that there would be no new jobs for community residents (we asked specifically). It was explained to us that the new plant would be run remotely from their San Emidio facility to the south of us, with only occasional in-person visits. There was also no promise of any kind of new infrastructure: we asked. In fact, we told them that the power here in town was notoriously unreliable, and that we could very much use help with that. We were told that they could not help us meaningfully with that issue. Additionally, we indicated that the town had a serious housing problem, and asked if they could possibly help us with that by building new housing for their workers? They indicated they couldn’t help us with that either, as there would not be any new workers. 

As for the other promises: we already have a municipal water system, and would rather they not build on top of it. We also have our own telecommunications system, and have no need of new roads: these will presumably both be constructed for the benefit of Ormat, and not for local residents. So everything in their statement is either misleading, or strains credulity. In fact, we were told the only benefit we could expect was an annual payment of roughly five million dollars a year in tax revenue paid directly to Washoe County; which our community exists within – but on the opposite side of – from Reno, some one hundred miles to the south. As Gerlach has roughly 200 residents, and Reno has 265,000, it is reasonable to assume based on our past experience with other revenues that none of that income will actually be spent on our community. (Though this may explain why our county government has been thus far publicly silent on this issue, despite numerous requests from Gerlach residents for assistance in stopping the project for the reasons I’ve listed above.) And money will be of little use to a community that has already been destroyed and abandoned in any case.

Which makes you think: would that be a bug – or a feature – for the BLM and Ormat? 

Finally, I would like to point out that the chairman of the State of Nevada’s Commission on Mineral Resources (https://minerals.nv.gov/Commission/) Mr. Josh Nordquist is ALSO Ormat Technologies’ Vice President of Drilling & Wellfields. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/joshnordquist). So it’s reasonable to assume he will be in charge of the initial phases of the project around Gerlach. This commission is charged to “Advise and make recommendations to the Governor, the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission and the Legislature concerning the policy of this State relating to minerals.” As his role on the commission is specifically geothermal resources, it’s also reasonable to assume that Ormat is currently advising the state government on how best to regulate Ormat: an obvious conflict of interest. Which may explain why our state government has also thus far been publicly silent on this issue, despite (once again) numerous requests from Gerlach residents for assistance in stopping the project.

Jason Walters is a Nevada based author and publisher. He is a long term resident of the in the small town of Gerlach, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.


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