Geothermal plants are shaking up a California town

Daily earthquakes are blamed for damage to residents' homes

April 24, 2004|By Kenneth Reich | Kenneth Reich,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANDERSON SPRINGS, Calif. - At Allen Clay's house in this mountain hamlet of Lake County, earthquakes aren't just a distant worry. They are an unsettling fact of daily life.

Clay points to his kitchen counter as proof. The counter has become slightly bent, causing water to run down one side. His outdoor walkway has sloped in places, and the foundation of his tidy bungalow shows small cracks - all the result, he believes, of temblors.

"If you shake something every day, something's going to happen," Clay said.

Anderson Springs, population 350, has become a California seismic curiosity.

Even though it's not near any active fault lines, the town has recorded a quake an average of 1 1/2 times a day for seven years. In the surrounding 50-square- mile Geysers region about 90 miles north of San Francisco, 3,000 temblors occurred in 2002 alone - making it one of the most seismically active regions in the United States.

There is agreement by all sides that the temblors are man-made, caused not by the clashing of tectonic plates but by two dozen geothermal plants operating as close as two miles from Anderson Springs.

Opened 40 years ago, the plants feed off Lake and Sonoma counties' famous geothermal field, which years ago drew visitors from around the world to bathe in the mineral springs. The plants generate 1,000 megawatts of power, making them the largest geothermal producer in the world.

In what was once an area of little seismic activity, quakes began increasing when the plants opened. But the temblors have become even more common since the plants' main operator, Calpine Corp., began injecting millions of gallons of wastewater daily underneath the surface to spur the creation of steam used to produce the electricity.

Most of the quakes are small - magnitude 1 or 2, which can barely be felt. But every few months, a stronger one occurs. There have been nine greater than 4.0 in the area over the past two decades, the largest being a 4.6.

A growing number of residents have joined to demand that something be done. They also want the plant operators, who acknowledge the quakes' link to the energy production, to pay the residents for what they assert is quake-caused property damage that has slowly built up.

The movement has prompted debate by residents and seismologists about how serious the problem is and whether homeowners are owed compensation.

Anderson Springs is one of several mountain communities formed to take advantage of the hot springs of the Geysers region. A century ago, the area boasted resorts and health spas where visitors came to bathe in the "therapeutic" waters. But the resorts eventually closed or burned down, and some communities fell on hard times.

Many saw the opening of the geothermal plants as a way to boost the town. A dozen Anderson Springs residents work at the plants, which employ 425 workers. But these days, the earthquakes have become a consuming topic in town.

Two local environmental organizations have helped organize concerned residents, and one conducted several surveys that polled about half the town's inhabitants. Eighty-seven percent of those polled last summer agreed with the statement "Earthquakes are becoming a public nuisance at Anderson Springs."

"I'm going to have a structural engineer look at my house," said Jackie Felber, pointing to hairline cracks in her floors and displacements in the siding.

The mother of three has lived in Anderson Springs for 18 years. She first noticed a surge in quakes in 1998 - just after the wastewater injections were stepped up.

"We've always had quakes up here, but the quakes were milder," she said. "It would shake a little bit. These quakes are so strong that it seems like a truck is hitting your place."

Resident Connie Dethlefson said that with some of the quakes "it feels as if there's an explosion under the house."

After she pointed to cracks and displacements, and told of house guests fleeing her home in fear when quakes struck, Dethlefson was asked why, if the shaking was so bad, she had bottles of wine standing right on the edge of shelves above the hard floors.

"I'm not going to screw everything down just because" the geothermal operators "are making my life miserable," she responded.

Dethlefson, Felber and Clay are among the residents seeking compensation.

Calpine Corp. and the Northern California Power Agency don't rule it out. In fact, they suggest they would prefer to pay something to show good will, as long as they do not have to admit formal liability and open themselves up to endless payments.

J.L. "Bill" Smith of the power agency said compensation could be called "a community assistance fund," although he added that he believed the quakes had caused no appreciable damage. He said he didn't see how they could have, because they had not damaged his company's offices at the plants.

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