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Burning Man joined by Paiute tribe, homeowners in lawsuit against the Feds

Burning Man is held in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada. | Courtesy Jamen Percy for Burning Man

The legal battle to prevent geothermal mining near the Black Rock Desert town of Gerlach, Nevada, took another step forward Monday.

The Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, Gerlach Preservation Society and several local residents joined a lawsuit filed against the Bureau of Land Management by Burning Man Project and four other litigants in January. 

“With the close proximity of the proposed geothermal facilities to the Summit Lake Paiute Indian Reservation, the Tribe has serious concerns about this project overall, and how rushed the approval process has been,” Summit Lake Paiute chairwoman Randi Lone Eagle said in a statement. 

“We are greatly troubled by the potential water and natural resource impacts, and the possible negative effects on our historic lands,” Lone Eagle added. “Government consultation with our Tribe through this process was inadequate, and the cycle of exploitative practices in the name of energy generation must stop.”

For more than 30 years, the San Francisco-based nonprofit has held the annual gathering of 80,000 “Burners” on federal land 15 miles north of Gerlach. Over the decades, Burning Man has become a major property owner and employer in the tiny, Old West town two hours north of Reno that famously serves as the last stop before the entrance to the event.

One of Burning Man's office buildings and the historic water tower on Main Street in Gerlach | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

“Our interests go beyond the large-scale event we produce in the Black Rock Desert,” said Burning Man Project’s Director of Government Affairs Marnee Benson in a statement. “We’re deeply invested in the Gerlach community and in creating long-term opportunities for tourism, sustainability, and economic development.”

READ MORE: Burning Man Fights the Feds to Save Its New Home in the Old West

The lawsuit pits Burning Man, two environmental organizations and two local property owners against the federal government for approving a geothermal drilling exploration project in the town’s backyard. Residents and opponents say the approval was fast-tracked and did not include a rigorous examination of the impact that drilling and the potential for a future power plant would have on the residents, economy and environment. 

Gerlach residents Will Roger and his partner Crimson Rose, who are part of Burning Man’s founding team, have signed onto the amended complaint, along with locals Stacey Black, Margie Reynolds, Jason Walters and Dave Cooper.

Crimson Rose and Will Roger of Gerlach, Nevada, are two of the additional co-litigants joining the Burning Man lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

“The proposed geothermal plant would destroy the solitude, dark skies and wilderness all around Gerlach—all the reasons why we live here,” Roger said in a statement. “All our natural hot springs would dry up, adversely affecting wildlife habitat and probably destroy our homes due to subsidence.” 

Indeed, locals are also worried that Gerlach’s homes and storefronts could subside, or sink, when mining begins. There is an increasing body of research showing that geothermal mining of deep subterranean water often dries up surface-level hot springs. 

The frontier town of Gerlach, Nevada, sits at the base of the Granite Range, two hours north of Reno. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

In Gerlach, hot springs both surround and underpin the town, causing buildings to occasionally subside even without mining. Residents of the struggling town of about 125 people say they are being asked to take all the risk for the project without receiving any benefit.

The Bureau of Land Management refused to comment on the pending litigation. Ormat, the geothermal energy company that owns the mining claims in Gerlach and will perform the drilling, says Burning Man is unnecessarily fostering anxiety around the project with locals. The company told The Standard last month that it is confident that the project will proceed.

Ormat’s comment regarding the new litigants added to the suit today was not received by press time. 

A Green Gold Rush in the Silver State

The need to bring sustainable power projects online has become more urgent after the Biden Administration announced a goal of reaching a zero-carbon power grid by 2035. Renewable energy advocates say projects such as this are critical to achieving that goal.

Ormat is a global leader in geothermal energy projects and currently runs 15 mines in Nevada alone. Its facilities produce enough energy to power 325,000 homes in the state.

Ormat's geothermal plants like this one in Reno create zero-carbon power for homes in Nevada and California. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

And because 80% of Nevada’s land is federally owned, the state is seeing a “land rush” to get geothermal, solar and other mining projects off the ground. Nevada produces 24% of America’s geothermal power and sends much of that energy west to California. In fact, Ormat told The Standard that 37% of the green power it produces is sold directly to the Golden State.

READ MORE: Burning Man CEO Explores Its ‘Absolutely San Francisco’ Culture

Neither Burning Man nor the residents of Gerlach or environmental organizations involved in the lawsuit say they oppose sustainable energy projects. Their question is why the project needs to be just hundreds of feet away from their properties in a historic small town.

“The Ormat proposal in Gerlach is unprecedented as it would be the first geothermal plant built right next to an existing community,” Roger said. “There are hundreds of other geothermal locations throughout Nevada where the impacts would not directly affect a community.” 

Following the amended complaint filed in federal court Monday, the next step in this legal fight will take place at the local level. Washoe County officials will hear an appeal to its approval for the project later this month.