THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN UPDATED AND CLARIFIED REGARDING INFORMATION ABOUT THE PERMIT AND MEETING ATTENDANCE.
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. – South county residents gathered last week to hear an update on Calpine Corp.’s plans to seek an extension of a permit covering several geothermal wells and to voice their concerns about geothermal operations in the area.
Calpine Corp. hosted the meeting last Tuesday, Nov. 27, at its visitor center in Middletown to discuss continued geothermal well operation at the Davies Estate geothermal well site on Foard Road.
About 15 community members, including residents of Anderson Springs, the community closest to the drilling, came to voice their concerns. The meeting was led by Bruce Carlsen, Calpine’s director of environmental health and safety.
Up for consideration was Calpine’s application to renew a 29 year old permit issued by the Lake County Community Development Department.
The permit, which expires Aug. 11, 2013, covers four existing wells on a pad at Davies Estate, privately owned land located less than a mile south of Anderson Springs.
Among those who attended the meeting was Meriel Medrano, who has lived in Anderson Springs since 1971.
Over the years, residents have been increasingly affected by small earthquakes caused by geothermal production. The shaking occurs almost every day, she said in a phone interview.
“We were here first,” Medrano said. And now, “we are three-quarters surrounded by power plants.”
The Geysers, which began operation in the 1960s, has developed into the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, with companies besides Calpine at work in the steam field.
Calpine operates 15 power plants at The Geysers and generates enough electricity to power 725,000 homes, according to the company’s Web site.
However, that clean energy production also has taken its toll on about 200 homes in Anderson Springs, according to residents.
Some Anderson Springs residents have had “considerable damages,” said Medrano, citing broken windows, a fallen chimney and cracked foundations.
The site in question is only one of many that impact residents, Medrano said. “We can only address the permits as they come up.”
Medrano is part of the Anderson Springs Community Alliance, a group that advocates for residents, and the health of the local environment.
She said she attended the meeting to find out, for one thing, for how long Calpine wants to extend the permit.
The residents want a deadline, she said. “We would feel more confident if there was a 10-year plan.”
In addition, the group wants some consideration of seismicity included in the permit.
If, for example, a large earthquake occurred, they would like to see “some condition” to address that possibility, such as shutting down the wells.
They also are asking for a new environmental review. The last one was done decades ago, prior to the original permit for the wells.
Ahead of the meeting, the group sent their comments to the Lake County Community Development Department, as well as to Calpine. Their goal, Medrano said, is to see that their concerns are added to the permit.
Calpine spokesperson Danielle Matthews Seperas said the company objects to each condition of the group’s proposal.
Seperas explained that the conditions would increase the costs of an already extremely costly business – yet the company won’t be making any changes at the site. There will be no new development.
She said geothermal permits in other areas generally do not expire.
She isn’t sure why the original 30-year life was imposed by the county; Sonoma County, for example, has no such deadline on geothermal permits, she added.
“We are asking for it to be unlimited,” Seperas said of the permit.
Such geothermal permits do not expire in terms of the construction of the well, according to Joe Austin, the district geothermal engineer with California Department of Conservation in Santa Rosa.
However, this is a land use permit which is filed with the county rather than the state, Austin explained. Therefore, it does expire.
Austin said Lake County is the lead agency in regard to any new environmental review. “It’s up to the county” if that should be done.
Seperas said a new environmental review isn’t necessary, citing the Class 1 Categorical Exemption, which is applicable to projects that involve negligible or no expansion of existing use at the time of lead agency’s determination. There will be no expansion of existing use at the Davies Estate site, only an extension of time.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act – known more commonly as CEQA – “We are exempt from another review,” Seperas said.
Medrano and her fellow Anderson Springs residents disagreed.
In the letter from the Anderson Springs Community Alliance, Jeffrey Gospe, the alliance’s president, argued that the permit should receive no such exemption. He said operation of the wells does and will change over time.
Gospe referred to CEQA guidelines that identify “cumulative impact” and “significant effect” – such as seismicity associated with the project – claiming that exemptions “are not applicable.”
The original use permit is so out of date that the alliance’s members said it doesn’t even mention induced seismicity.
According to Seperas, Calpine is already working under seismicity constraints. “Seismicity needs to be studied Geyser-wide” – and it is.
The four wells that comprise the Davies Estate project simply take steam through the plant, Seperas said, so they don’t intend to make any changes to the permit in regard to earthquakes.
Medrano admitted that even if drilling stopped at this one site, the earthquakes would not. But she said the community would still like to revisit the permit in the event of an unusually large earthquake.
Have they experienced increased seismicity over time?
“Oh my God, yes,” she said.
Starting in 2005, residents have been paid exact damages for their homes. To date, the repair costs amount to $190,000, Medrano estimated.
The funds are provided through another steam field operator, the nonprofit Northern California Power Agency.
Seperas said Calpine has tried to be a good neighbor. The company helps reimburse the community by funding local projects, which now total $545,582 to Anderson Springs, she estimated.
The company funds two committees, which also cover Cobb. Since 2005, when the committees were launched, Cobb has received $293,000, according to Seperas.
Medrano noted that Calpine also “tried to move some of the wells,” noting, “That helped a great deal.”
Medrano added, “We’re trying to work with them.”
And while she thinks the meeting “went really well,” the group plans to press on with their concerns about the permit, Medrano said.
They will have a second chance to do that on Dec. 13, when the Lake County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to consider Calpine’s application.
Sheila Pell is a Lake County News correspondent.