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Empire Farms Power Plant

Empire Farms is a geothermal power generation station located 80 miles north of Reno Nevada in the San Emidio Desert. Two energy converters constructed by Ormat Technologies (also the owner and operator of the facility) provide a generating capability of 3.6 megawatts. These energy converters are of a proprietary design; the all-in-one units consist of a combustion system, a vapor generator, a turbo-alternator and an air-cooled condenser within a single housing. According to technicians at Ormat, these units can provide up to 3 megawatts of electricity 24/7 over a twenty-five year period with minimal maintenance.

The region was first explored for geothermal potential in the 1970s. The current plant went online in 1988. In addition to the power generation operation, the site is home to an onion and garlic dehydration plant that makes use of the same geothermal energy source.

Geothermal energy is heat that is left over from the formation of the planet some 6.5 billion years ago. Regardless of the source of heat however, power plants have historically made extensive use of asbestos containing products (ACMs), particularly before 1980.

The health effects of asbestos were well-known to medical science by the late 1930s. However, the corporations engaged in the manufacture and sale of ACMs spent a great deal of money over the subsequent four decades to suppress this information and keep it from reaching the public. Where this was not possible, they issued propaganda that insured such health warnings from the medical research establishment were not taken seriously.

When the significant asbestos cases started coming before the courts in the 1960s, lawyers for these corporations claimed that they have no knowledge of asbestos toxicity and therefore could not be held liable. This lie was exposed in 1977 with the discovery of the “Sumner Simpson Papers,” which documented the forty-year corporate conspiracy of silence.

Amphibole asbestos is an excellent electrical insulator, and was used extensively throughout the construction of power generation facilities such as Nucla. ACMs could be found in electrical cloth, conduits and even the machinery itself, including turbines and generators. Asbestos inside machinery has especially hazardous, since it could eject millions of friable asbestos fibers into the immediate environment while in motion.

A Puerto Rican study published in 2007 examined the chest x-rays of over 1,100 workers; more than 130 of them showed signs of asbestos disease.

Diseases such as asbestos cancer (lung cancer and mesothelioma) and asbestosis are serious risks among power plant workers – and their families as well, since asbestos fibers were able to travel home in workers' hair and on their clothing. Several recent court cases have demonstrated the danger of such “secondary exposure.”

Mesothelioma is a very slow-growing malignancy; early symptoms are similar to those of other respiratory disease (it can affect the abdominal cavity and heart as well), and may not appear until two to six decades after the patient's first exposure to asbestos. It is therefore a very difficult disease to diagnose, and by the time such a diagnosis is confirmed, the disease is usually far advanced. Patients usually do not survive more than two years after such a diagnosis. Still, when detected early mesothelioma chemotherapy is available from doctors like Dr. David Sugarbaker at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA.

Fortunately, there is a new method that was recently approved for use in the U.S. by the FDA that allows pathologists to detect the “markers” of mesothelioma in its earliest stages. Anyone who was employed at Nucla prior to the 1980s as well as their family members should be checked out by a physician early and often, since prognosis is much better when the disease is treated in its initial stages.

Through the 1970s, it was extremely common for factories, mills, power plants and worksites to use asbestos because it offered high resistance to transferring heat and electricity. It is ironic that protecting lives was generally one of the primary reasons behind utilizing asbestos in places because the outcome was actually to put employees at risk of serious illness or death due to contact with asbestos. The illnesses linked to asbestos include pleural plaques and cancer; the biggest chance of developing these conditions happens when asbestos-containing materials become fragile, releasing microfibers into the air where they are easy to inhale or ingest. Also, job-related exposure to asbestos is the primary cause of the almost always fatal form of cancer known as mesothelioma, which affects the mesothelium, the tissue that lines the chest cavity (pleural mesothelioma) or the abdominal cavity (pericardial mesothelioma).

Today, we are aware of the risks of being exposed to asbestos, and government regulations protect employees whose jobs put them in contact with this potentially lethal mineral. Even up to the last part of the 20th century, though, laborers all too often were told to toil in areas in which air filled with asbestos particles was not filtered; in most cases, the risks of asbestos exposure were little understood. Furthermore, if the employer did not provide showers, workers took asbestos fibers home on their clothes or in their hair, which exposed others in their household to this deadly toxin.

Men and women who were employed at this site in the past, as well as their spouses and children, are advised to find out about these health conditions and inform their healthcare professionals about their history of asbestos contact, because the signs of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma are often difficult to distinguish from those of less serious conditions.

Sources

Sources

Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.

Cabrera-Santiago, Manuel et al. "Prevalence of Asbestos-Related Disease Among Electrical Power Generation Workers in Puerto Rico." Presentation at American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, 2007.

"Geothermal Power Projects." nevadarenewables.org. 2009. Nevada Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Task Force.
http://www.nevadarenewables.org/section=geothermal&subsection=projects&id=133

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