Photo by Marc Dadigan
Pit River tribal members Laura Seal (center) and Jessica Jim (right) with the help of a young friend rally April 19 outside the Robert T. Matsui Courthouse in Sacramento, California where a federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management illegally extended geothermal leases in the sacred Medicine Lake Highlands.

Pit River Tribe Scores Court Victory in Battle for Medicine Lake

Marc Dadigan

Pit River tribal elder Laura Seal’s connection to the sacred healing waters of Medicine Lake began as an infant. During a family picnic, her great-grandfather spirited her away and dipped her in the glacial spring waters, much to her mother’s consternation.

“She told him I was going to catch cold, but he said he had to do this for me. He was asking the lake for blessings for me,” Seal said. “Looking back, I believe those blessings made a big difference in my life.”

Since the early ‘80s, Seal and many other Pit River people have fought to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands from plans by the Bureau of Land Management and energy corporations to develop geothermal power there, which would industrialize the pristine volcanic landscape and risk contaminating the lake with hydraulic fracturing.

After decades of activism and 12 years of litigation, the Pit River Tribe and their allies scored a landmark victory in federal court on April 19, when Judge John Mendez ruled the BLM illegally extended 26 geothermal leases to Calpine Corporation without any tribal consultation or environmental review.

While the judge plans to review briefings on the appropriate remedy this summer, Pit River tribal officials cautiously hope this win will be the first step toward the leases being vacated. That would be the knockout blow to Calpine’s latest plan to develop a series of geothermal plants for a 480-megawatt project.

Morning Star Gali (center), the Pit River Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, leads chants outside the Robert T. Matsui Courthouse in Sacramento, California, where a federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management illegally extended geothermal leases in the sacred Medicine Lake Highlands. (Photo by Marc Dadigan)

Officials at the BLM have said they can’t comment on pending litigation, and Calpine staff did not return calls requesting comment.

The Pit River Tribe and the environmental advocacy groups were represented by law students from Stanford University’s Environmental Law Clinic, which is directed by Professor of Environmental Law Deborah Sivas. Her students have more work on their hands, Sivas said. Even though the 26 leases were originally extended in 1998, the federal attorneys may use a 2005 revision to the Geothermal Steam Act to argue a reasonable remedy doesn’t require any additional tribal consultation or mandatory reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act.

“There’s language in there that they’ll argue makes the lease extensions mandatory rather than discretionary,” she said. “Of course they would have had to do all the NEPA and NHPA work back in 1998 if they followed the law, but they’re hoping to benefit from 20 years of getting away with illegally leasing the land.”

Before the hearing in Sacramento, more than 100 tribal members and allies rallied to protect the Medicine Lake highlands, which the federal government declared a Traditional Cultural District in 1999, due to the numerous sacred sites and culturally significant areas. The highlands are sacred as well to the Karuk and Modoc people, and many Pit River tribal members, like Seal, describe Medicine Lake as a place they go for healing, guidance and balance.

Pit River Tribal members and supporters rally outside the Robert T. Matsui Courthouse in Sacramento, California where a federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management illegally extended geothermal leases in the sacred Medicine Lake Highlands. (Photo by Marc Dadigan)

By protecting Medicine Lake geothermal products, Pit River officials say they are not just protecting their culture but also one of California’s best insurance policies against persistent drought and climate change.

According to a 2014 geology study, the aquifer beneath Medicine Lake may store 20 to 40 million acre-feet of pristine water, nearly as much as California’s top 200 reservoirs. Every year, more than 1 million acre-feet of the water flows from the headlines down the Pit River to Shasta Lake, providing much of the water that is used to irrigate farmland in California’s desert-dry Central Valley.

Because chemical analysis indicates the water is stored for decades before seeping out into the Pit River, the supplies have yet to be affected by the drought, the study concluded.

Yet this water source is at risk, Pit River officials allege, by the Calpine’s geothermal production plans. Because hot water and steam are not easily available in the Medicine Lake project areas, Calpine’s previous proposed power plants would likely require drilling thousands of feet with the use of hydrochloric acid and other toxic fracking fluids that could contaminate the aquifer, according to the report written by retired UC-Santa Barbara geologist Robert Curry.

BLM officials have previously said the methods are extremely safe, and they said safer technologies may be developed if Calpine ever does succeed in green-lighting a geothermal plant.

But in addition to desecrating dozens of acres with roads, transmission lines and wells, the proposed Calpine power plants would also spew sulfur and industrialize a remote and sacred landscape.

“If Calpine fracks in our land, it will take away part of our culture and it will poison the waters,” said Pit River Tribal Chairman Mickey Gemmill Jr. “We’re not just fighting for our people but for everyone and for the waters of California.”

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