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SOURCE: SearchLight New Mexico

DATE: March 26, 2019

SNIP: The dark side of renewable energy is that every form of production carries its own environmental baggage. Without an ecological review, wind farms can put native and migratory birds at risk. Solar farms can interrupt ecosystems by fencing off and shading swaths of desert acreage. And geothermal energy, which has some advantages over wind and solar, can jeopardize freshwater resources.

In Hidalgo County, the deep geothermal water is dirty with naturally occurring contaminants — especially high levels of fluoride, a mineral that, when consumed in excess, is dangerous to bone health.

Riding his horse through cattle pasture of brush and brittle mesquite, Randy Walter spotted a steaming, 10-foot geyser spewing from a well that had been capped and padlocked for 12 years. It was March 2016, and Walter had ranched the dry terrain of New Mexico’s Bootheel for as long as he could remember.

If he knew one thing about the Animas Valley, it was this: Water doesn’t just blow out of the ground.

Two miles away, a Utah company called Cyrq Energy had erected a $43 million geothermal electricity plant in 2013. Its green pipes and rectangular pods of turbines rose like stacks of giant Legos in the desert.

From the outset, local residents had questioned Cyrq’s assertion that it could pump geothermal water from thousands of feet down and reinject it at similar depths without tainting the shallow, freshwater aquifer. Like many places in New Mexico, the health of the local farm and ranch economy is rooted to the water. So are the lives of the scattered people who live in the Animas Basin.

Cyrq, formerly known as Raser Technologies, retooled its business model in 2007 to exploit the growing market for geothermal energy. But it has a checkered past, including two bankruptcies, a retreat from the New York Stock Exchange back into private hands, a falling-out with Chinese creditors and ongoing litigation with an Animas Valley tilapia farm.

“We get along with everybody in the community,” said Tom Carroll, whose Albuquerque firm handles public relations for Cyrq.

The community’s reluctance to talk candidly about the company suggests otherwise.

One of the people unafraid to speak out is Meira Gault, a 69-year-old cattle rancher who once served in intelligence in the Israeli Army and has been a Hidalgo conservation district official for 11 years.

Gault said she views the well blow-out as the surest sign that the geothermal water simply isn’t going where Cyrq promised it would go.

The injection well is “in the same aquifer the ranchers have their windmills in and farmers have the wells in,” said Jim Witcher, a local hydrogeologist. “But we know the water is flowing north into the aquifer; it’s not flowing southeast into bedrock. That’s hydrology 101.”

This spring, Cyrq will celebrate the second grand opening of Lightning Dock in five years. The reason? According to its spokesman, the plant has finally met its longtime production target for generating 10 to 12 megawatts full-time.

That goal may not be cause for celebration for residents of the Animas Valley, however. It signifies that the plant is re-injecting the geothermal water at a much higher rate, since all the water that comes up must go back down in the ground.

With the McCants well sealed and no monitoring wells north of the nearby injection site, Lightning Dock could contaminate the aquifer without anyone knowing until it’s too late.