Pit River representing outside federal court. Native News Online photo by Nanette Bradley Deetz
SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday, March 12, representatives from the Pit River Nation organized a ceremonial sunrise gathering, march, rally, and encouraged all who attended to sit in court and hear the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal Hearing to protect Medicine Lake Highlands from geothermal desecration. The court has heard arguments in an ongoing legal battle since 1981, when the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service released an Environmental Assessment for “casual use” exploration of the Medicine Lake area for geothermal leasing. Neither BLM nor the Forest Service engaged in discussion of the cultural, environmental or tribal impacts of geothermal development with the Pit River Nation.
Medicine Lake Highlands or “Saht Tit Lah” to the Pit River people, are used for healing, religious ceremonies, and many tribal gatherings. This area is considered sacred land by not only the Pit River Nation, but the Wintun, Karuk, Shasta and Modoc Nations.
“This case might decide the fate of one of our most important places of religious significance and if geothermal development is allowed to occur it will affect countless generations of Native Americans. This is a continuation of the damage done to our people since the Gold Rush era. What is at stake here is the survival of our culture and our people. All the dams that have been built have already killed off most of the native fish. Now with the proposal to frack our water source, while attempting to create energy, they will poison the water completely. They have tried for the last 150 years to destroy our people, so this is a continuance of the same thing,” stated Pit River Tribal Chairman Mickey Gemmill.
“The United States must find room within the legal confines of our justice system to truly allow justice for Native people, not just rubber stamp corporate projects that destroy critical resources in the name of the dollar. Justice here can only mean finding in favor of the Tribe,” said Darcie Houck, tribal lawyer for the Pit River Nation.
Calpine Energy is proposing a plan to construct five geothermal power plants that threaten to poison the waters of Medicine Lake and pollute Fall River Springs. The Medicine Lake Highlands, the upper elevations of the Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest shield volcano in the continental United States, are located just 30 miles northeast of Mt. Shasta. This highland area provides pristine groundwater that then flows into the Shasta Lake Reservoir. The aquifer that lies beneath Medicine Lake Volcano discharges huge volumes of water annually. It may be responsible for 1.1 million acre-feet flowing from Fall River Springs annually.
The Medicine Lake region lacks naturally occurring steam, so Calpine Energy is proposing to use hydraulic fracturing and acid leaching, injecting hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids plus additional chemicals, into tunnels 9,000 feet below Medicine Lake. These chemicals are highly toxic, and by injecting it under pressure, it could contaminate the aquifer through acid migration and even trigger seismic activity.
The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic represented the Pit River Nation and prepared evidence for the hearing. Evan Stein and Jason George, current law students at Stanford, presented articulate and convincing arguments against Calpine Energy. The core of their argument seemed to be that the government (BLM) violated the intent of the original Geothermal Steam Act and is not honoring the Doctrine of Multiple Use which can and should be used in this case as well as others like it. In addition, the BLM has mis-read the Bennett Act. All of these laws require a review of cultural and environmental impacts of giant industrial projects and require consultation with tribal nations involved. Calpine Energy is unwilling to allow withdrawl and reconsideration of lease extensions.
“The tribal attorney’s did a fine job today. The questions the judge asked Calpine Energy forced their hand, and were quite direct. You know, these courts really weren’t built for us, for native peoples, yet we rely on them when development and economics override Mother Earth. If the Pit River Nation prevails today, it will be a win for everyone in California. Somewhere there must be someone who can stand up for Mother Earth. As I took photos today of the children who traveled here with parents, I was praying that this fight would not continue in their lifetime,” commented Caleen Sisk, Tribal and Spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu.