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Dispute swirls around geothermal project

 January 14, 2006 by LEE JUILLERAT  H&N Regional Editor

Controversy continues to boil over plans to develop a $200-million geothermal energy project at the Medicine Lake Highlands.

The concept of generating geothermal energy from the highlands, a collapsed large shield volcano east of Lava Beds National Monument, has been debated since the 1980s.

A series of developers have proposed drilling geothermal wells at Medicine Lake and transmitting energy over power transmission lines. Geothermal energy has been touted as a clean alternative to other sources of electricity, such as fossil fuels, coal and nuclear energy. The state of California is requiring energy providers to place a higher reliance on alternative power, such as geothermal and wind, to ease dependence on fossil fuels.

The work includes pumping naturally heated water from underground sources, using the water to generate power and then pumping the water back into the ground to be reheated and reused.

Some studies indicate the Medicine Lake Highlands has the largest identified geothermal resource in the lower 48 states.

Opponents, including a combination of environmental groups and Indian tribes, claim the area is sacred ground and say development would harm plants important to tribal cultures.

Calpine Energy Corporation wants to develop the Telephone Flat geothermal plant, a 15-acre site about a mile from Medicine Lake. The project calls for 15 geothermal wells that would produce a constant 49 megawatts of power. One megawatt is enough energy to power about 1,000 households. The estimated cost of building the plant, a 13-mile transmission line and other work is nearly $200 million. The plant's construction would require 200-plus workers, and the plant would operate with 20 full-time employees.

A second plant, the Fourmile Hill power plant, also is licensed for 49 megawatts.

Calpine project manager Andrew Whittome said that because of ongoing setbacks, there is no time line for developing either project, although Telephone Flat has first priority.

“By the nature of the beast, it's going to be phased development,” Whittome said.

Last August, Calpine officials wanted to move ahead with first phase development at Telephone Flat, including clearings for three well pads, each about 3 to 4 acres, the 20-acre electrical power plant site and access roads. Because of concerns, the BLM and Forest Service, which manage federal lands at Medicine Lake Highlands, imposed a temporary halt to work pending further reviews.

The Telephone Flat Geothermal Project Oversight Group, which was formed in 2002 to monitor Calpine requirements dealing with developing, operating and decommissioning a power plant, will meet from 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 27, at the Klamath National Forest headquarters office in Yreka.

Group members include representatives from the Pit River and Klamath Tribes, Shasta Nation, Shasta Tribe, Inc., Native Coalition, Save Medicine Lake Coalition, Medicine Lake Homeowner's Association, Mt. Shasta Bioregional Ecology Group and Siskiyou County.


Tim Burke, the BLM's Alturas field office manager, said that barring unforeseen circumstances, the oversight process should be completed by early March. On-site work could begin after that, although various lawsuits could cause further delays.

Burke said Calpine officials will be asked how the company's December bankruptcy filing will affect the project. The company filed a Chapter 11 restructuring bankruptcy Dec. 20.

“The development does continue,” said Calpine spokeswoman Katherine Potter. “At this point there are no changes to our plan.”

Whittome said that despite the filing, “the rest of our development projects are going ahead.”

The controversy will play out on Jan. 28, the day following the oversight meeting, when project opponents will hold a demonstration in San Jose, Calif., at the Calpine corporate offices.

“We're going to demonstrate with signs and wear red T-shirts,” said James Hayward of Redding, Calif., one of the demonstration organizers. “We want to demonstrate because Medicine Lake has ancestral lands that are sacred to several tribes. We want Calpine to realize we're always going to be there.”

The “peaceful protest” is scheduled from noon to 2 p.m. at Calpine's corporate office near San Jose State University.

A portion of the Medicine Lake Highlands has been designated as a Traditional Cultural District by the National Register of Historic Places. Indian tribes claim the caldera has been used for spiritual, ceremonial and healing purposes for more than 10,000 years by the Pit River, Modoc and Shasta tribes.

Geologic facts about Medicine Lake

The Medicine Lake Highlands and caldera, located east of Lava Beds National Monument in California, is the largest volcano in the Cascade Range.

A shield volcano, the mountain is about 150 miles long around its base and 7,900 feet above sea level. Medicine Lake, a bowl-shaped depression in the mountain, is part of the old caldera. The 408-acre lake, with a greatest depth of 152 feet, has several cabins around a portion of its shores.

Geologists estimate that Medicine Lake has sporadically erupted for a half-million years. The eruptions were gentle, unlike the explosive eruptions at Mount St. Helens and the historic Mount Mazama. As a result, the sides of the volcano were coated with several flows of basaltic lava, creating a shield-shaped 20-mile diameter area with many parasite cones.

The most recent eruption occurred about 1,000 years ago when rhyolite and dacite erupted and formed Glass Mountain and created vents near the caldera's east rim.

Investigations indicate at least 17 eruptions have occurred during the last 12,000 years, an average of about one or two eruptions per century.

The volcano never rose more than about 2,500 feet above the adjoining Modoc Plateau, but it remains a significant geologic feature.

In his book, “Fire and Ice,” geologist Stephen Harris says the original caldera that indents the volcano's summit was about four-by-six miles. Unlike the caldera that encases Crater Lake, Medicine Lake's elongated summit basin has been largely filled by later eruptions from vents on the perimeters of the old caldera.

Basalt flows on the volcano's north and south flanks contain lava tubes with several collapses. The resulting lava tube caves are attractions at Lava Beds National Monument, which is located on volcano's north flank.

- By Lee Juillerat




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