Court takes a pass but agreement pauses geothermal plant construction
The Dixie Valley toad is found only in Nevada and its entire population lives in a thermal spring-fed wetland in the remote Dixie Valley. (Credit: Chad Mellison/USFWS)
A federal court this week refused to bar construction on a Nevada geothermal plant that opponents say threatens to destroy a sacred site and drive the rare Dixie Valley toad to extinction.
But thanks to a legal agreement between project opponents and geothermal developer Ormat Nevada Inc. hours later, construction on the project will be paused while risks to the endangered Dixie Valley toad are evaluated.
In June, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center for Biological Diversity urged the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse an order allowing ongoing construction and development of a geothermal energy project in Churchill County
Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe previously succeeded in getting a district judge to temporarily pause construction of the project, but the ruling was later overturned.
Months later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the agency would move to protect the toad under the Endangered Species Act on an emergency basis.
The agency concluded that the geothermal project poses an immediate and significant risk to the well-being of the Dixie Valley toad, adding that an “emergency listing is necessary to prevent losses that may result in its extinction.”
Members of the 9th Circuit three-judge panel, however, ruled Monday that the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe failed to show their challenge of the federal approvals for the project were likely to succeed, and rejected the groups’ appeal.
The legal agreement will pause construction on the site until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes formal consultation on the project or until Dec. 31, whichever comes first.
“I’m thrilled that yet again the bulldozers are grinding to a halt as a result of our legal actions,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center. “Nearly every scientist who has evaluated this project agrees that it puts the Dixie Valley toad in the crosshairs of extinction. This agreement gives the toad a fighting shot.”
The agreement also set a briefing schedule for the merits of the case at the district court.
Geothermal developer Ormat previously said construction on the site was on track to be completed by December, after arguing that any delay would cost the developer $30 million in future revenue over a 20 year period. The project was approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in November.
The recently discovered species of toad is unique to Nevada, and can only be found in remote wetlands fed by thermal desert springs on the western edge of the Dixie Valley Playa in Churchill County. Conservation biologists worry that any change in the temperature of the hot spring could harm the toad and expose it to parasites that cannot otherwise withstand the high temperatures of the spring.
“This agreement comes just in the nick of time to save this little toad from extinction,” said Donnelly. “We support geothermal energy, but it can’t come at the cost of biodiversity. We won’t rest until this destructive project is stopped for good.”
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