Major Win in the Ninth Circuit Court for the Medicine Lake Highlands

A 22-year challenge to industrial geothermal development in the Medicine Lake Highlands reached a pinnacle on September 19th with the issuance of a favorable decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit agreed with a 2017 U.S. District Court order that voided the 40-year extensions of 26 geothermal leases held by Calpine Corporation on thousands of acres in the Highlands—an order that BLM appealed to the higher court.

The Pit River Tribe, Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense, and Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment are the plaintiffs in the successful legal challenge, represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic.

“We are gratified by the Court’s affirmation of the plain text, logical reading of the statute,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. “The decision means that if BLM wants to revive or reissue the leases, it will have to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with the Tribe and conduct adequate environmental review.  Of course, our fervent hope is that the agency and the lessee will see the wisdom of walking away from development in this sacred landscape. We are eager to work with them toward that outcome.”

BLM’s appeal was based on a technical issue in the Geothermal Steam Act (GSA) on the point of whether the agency could extend all 26 leases in the entire Glass Mountain Unit for 40 years based on production of geothermal steam from a single lease. The three-judge Ninth Circuit panel ruled that the GSA was “clear and unambiguous” in allowing 40-year extensions based on steam production “only on a lease-by-lease basis, not on a unit-wide basis.” In other words, having a single productive lease didn’t justify longer leases for the entire 26-lease unit.

The Medicine Lake Highlands comprise the upper reaches of Medicine Lake Volcano, 30 miles northeast of Mount Shasta, and are held sacred by Pit River, Modoc, Wintu, Karuk and Shasta Tribes, who come to the Highlands for healing, religious ceremony and tribal gatherings. In 1999 and 2005, the National Register of Historic Places and the Forest Service designated a 113-square mile Native American Traditional Cultural District, recognizing spiritual and cultural uses that go back 10,000 years.

“Medicine Lake, known to us as ‘Saht Tit Lah’ is a very special place, not just for Pit River people but for all people. Even non-Native people called it Medicine Lake because they experienced how the waters are healing,” said Radley Davis, Pit River tribal member and co-chair of the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense. “The lake, the mountains around it, the springs, hunting grounds, and gathering areas are an interconnected whole — whose parts are tied together through the Creator’s power and spirit that inhabits them.” said Floyd buckskin, headman of the Tribe’s

Ahjumawi Band. The late Willard Rhoades, Elder of the Itsatewi Band, expressed the deep significance of the Highlands with these words: “When creating the world, when it was moist, the Maker of Life stopped here to rest and drink and wash, and imparted Himself in the water. That’s why we respect this place deep in our hearts.”

Calpine’s total lease holdings cover over half the designated traditional area, or 66 square miles. The corporation has stated plans to develop 500 to 1000 megawatts in the Highlands, seeking to exploit hot magma and fluids believed to exist 9,000 to 11,000 feet underground.

The geothermal projects have been hotly debated ever since they came to public attention in 1997. Indigenous and environmental plaintiffs see these projects as permanently damaging this water rich pristine area, transforming the Medicine Lake Highlands into an industrial wasteland with multiple power plants, high water use, noisy 24-hour drilling, landscape-fragmenting pipelines, toxic plumes exuding dangerous levels of arsenic, mercury and hydrogen sulfide.

“Large-scale geothermal development has never been compatible with the Medicine Lake Highlands’ life supporting values,” said Janie Painter, Director of Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment. “The Highlands’ unique volcanic landscapes, lush forests, diverse plant and wildlife species, free-flowing aquifers, recreational opportunities, and deep roots in sacred traditions are pre-existing values that would be devastated by industrial development.”

Scientific studies indicate the hydraulic fracturing technology that would be used could contaminate the huge pure aquifer that stores as much water as the combined volume of California’s 200 largest reservoirs. This source feeds the Fall River Springs, the state’s largest spring system, flowing into the Sacramento River and providing water to a world-class trout fishery, as well as to millions of downstream users.

“It’s been 22 years of holding sacred ground and protecting source waters,” said Michelle Berditschevsky, who leads Medicine Lake Highlands protection efforts for the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center. “In addition to being a magnificent landscape and major water source, this landscape has a cultural dimension that is vital for the planet, especially during this time of climate change. Pristine sanctuaries like the Medicine Lake Highlands and Mount Shasta help us heal and cultivate a sense of harmony that can guide us to wiser choices in order to restore balance with the natural order, for a livable world where all beings can thrive.”