$132 million project could be stalled
By MIKE McCOY Press Democrat Staff Writer
The fate of Santa Rosa's Geysers project is now in the hands of a judge after attorneys for the Alexander Valley Association and the city waged a high-stakes courtroom battle Thursday that could determine if construction on the $132 million project begins this June as planned.
Santa Rosa City Attorney Rene Chouteau said whether the city proceeds will be up to Superior Court Judge Lloyd von der Mehden, who will decide if the $15 million wastewater study used to select the route of the 41-mile-long pipeline and the pump station is adequate.
If von der Mehden decides it isn't, and orders the city to do further studies to fill the informational void that plaintiffs claim are in the 13,000-page study, "it could slow us down,'' Chouteau said.
"Or we could proceed at our own (financial) risk,'' Chouteau said, even if the judge rules against the city, as long as any additional information required is not substantive enough to materially affect the pipeline sections targeted for construction.
Von der Mehden has 90 days to render his decision and the judge, alluding to the 22 volumes that make up the city's four-year study, said, "It will take a reasonable time considering the volumes.''
The 235-member Alexander Valley Association filed the lawsuit two years ago after its membership rejected an agreement that would have provided valley residents with a dozen concessions that would have reduced the project's visual and noise impacts on the grape-growing region and installed fire hydrants along the pipeline's route as it passed through the valley to provide heightened fire protection.
Association members raised $135,000 by mid-1999 to finance the original lawsuit along with a second one it filed last August that challenges subsequent studies that analyze shifts in the pipeline route between Windsor and The Geysers.
Chouteau said this week that Santa Rosa has spent $368,000 so far on legal fees and consultants fighting the two legal actions.
While the second lawsuit won't be heard for months, Thursday's court fight could have a substantial impact if the Alexander Valley Association prevails.
Santa Rosa attorney Les Perry, the association's lead attorney, told von der Mehden that he personally doubted his clients had much of a case when they first came to him.
"How can it possibly be that a study that covers 22 volumes, cost millions of dollars and has a plethora of consultants involved be inadequate?'' Perry said he asked himself then.
But as he read the voluminous study, Perry said he realized that the study had given The Geysers project short shrift in its consideration of its impacts and mitigation measures largely because "there were no expectations (city officials) would ever select The Geysers project.''
That was largely because The Geysers plan was deemed too expensive to build and operate.
But only two months after the study was certified as adequate on June 19, 1997, The Geysers project leapt to the forefront when a consortium of geothermal companies stepped forward willing to pay $44 million of the project's construction cost.
The consortium also agreed to pay the bulk of the $2.8 million it was estimated it will cost annually to pump 11 million gallons of wastewater each day from the city's regional treatment plant on Llano Road to The Geysers steam fields 41 miles away.
The offer, coupled with fears that increasing federal regulations would eliminate the Russian River as the city's cheapest disposal option, convinced city leaders to shift their attention to The Geysers.
Seven months later, the city signed a 30-year contract with the geothermal companies to proceed.
Perry contends the pipeline project has changed so much from the one in the original $15 million study that major revisions are now required by environmental law.
But San Francisco attorney Richard Jacobs, representing Santa Rosa, said the city conducted dozens of meetings, answered thousands of questions and initially looked at 154 disposal alternatives before adopting the study, all without challenge by Alexander Valley Association members.
"They completely failed to participate,'' Jacobs said, and now are demanding changes to the study after the fact.
Jacobs told von der Mehden the city, however, has done what the association belatedly sought, further studying the original route to see if changes could be made that would lessen its impact on landowners while increasing the potential use of wastewater along the route.
Santa Rosa has since spent more than $2 million on subsequent studies that have resulted in major shifts in the pipeline route to reduce its visual and aesthetic impacts, expand the potential for agricultural irrigation and eliminate as much neighborhood opposition as possible. It also added 11 new volumes to the original 22-volume study.