US judge blocks work at Nevada geothermal plant for 90 days

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge said Tuesday he intends to temporarily block any construction work for 90 days at a proposed geothermal power plant in Nevada that opponents said would destroy a sacred tribal site and could result in extinction of a rare toad being considered for endangered species protection.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones said he's going to refuse a request for a longer injunction sought by tribal leaders and conservationists that would have prohibited any activity at the site until he can hear full arguments and rule on the merits of a lawsuit they filed last month.

But he explained that the 90-day restraining order will give them the option of appealing his decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a complicated legal case pitting production of renewable energy against protection of environmental and cultural resources.

A formal written order will follow in the days ahead, but Jones said at the end of a 2.5-hour hearing in federal court in Reno on Tuesday, “I've made up my mind.''

“I'm going to stop construction and progress for 90 days. That will give the plaintiffs an opportunity to get to the appellate court,'' he said.

The Reno-based Ormat Technologies Inc. had intended to begin bulldozing work this week at the site in northern Nevada's high desert about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Reno.

The lawsuit filed Dec. 15 by the Center for Biological Diversity and Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe said the project would turn a “pristine and unique location of ecological value and spiritual significance'' into an industrial site.

It accuses the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of illegally approving Ormat's project in the Dixie Meadows, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Fallon, without the necessary environmental analysis. It also said the agency is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Jones said granting a preliminary injunction to block any activity at the site beyond the 90 days would have required him to conclude that the tribe and the conservationists have a likelihood of ultimately prevailing on the merits of their arguments.

“I am not yet persuaded there is a strong likelihood of prevailing on the merits,'' he said.

Formed by natural springs, Dixie Meadows is a critical wetland ecosystem in a desert oasis that is home to the Dixie Valley toad found nowhere else in the world, the lawsuit said.

Tribal leaders have argued that their ancestors have lived in the Dixie Valley region for thousands of years and long recognized the hot springs as “a sacred place of healing and reflection.''

The bureau said in announcing the project's approval in November the two 30-megawatt geothermal plants would help Nevada meet its renewable portfolio requirement that the state's utilities procure 25% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Ormat argues it already has invested $68 million in the project and it could be jeopardized by any delays.

“Even a few weeks of delay in construction of this project ... may spell disaster for the financial viability of the project,'' the company said in recent court filings.