Page 23 of Overload

Both proposed developments were soon to be the subject of public bearings. The two-day excursion was intended as a media preview.

"I'll tell you something about that smell," the PR director continued.

“The hydrogen sulfide in the steam is only present in small amounts, not enough to be toxic. But we get complaints-mostly from real estate people who want to sell land in these mountains for resort development. Well, the smell was always here because steam filtered up through the ground, even before we harnessed it to generate electricity. What's more, old-timers say the smell isn't any worse now than it was originally."

"Can you prove that?" a reporter from the San lose Mercury asked.

Van Buren shook her bead. "Unfortunately no one had the foresight to take air samples before drilling began. So we can never compare the 'before' and 'after,' and we're stuck with the critics."

"Who are probably right" San lose Mercury said sardonically. "Everybody knows a big outfit like Golden State Power bends the truth now and then."

"I'll take that as a joke," the PR director responded. "But one thing is true. We try to meet our critics halfway."

A new voice said skeptically, "Give one example."

“There's one right here. It has to do with the smell. Because of the objections I told you about, we located two recently built power plants on ridges. There are strong air currents there which dissipate all odors quickly."

"So what happened?" Nancy Molineaux asked.

“There have been even more complaints than before-from environmentalists who say we've ruined the skyline."

There was mild laughter and one or two people wrote in notebooks.

"We had another no-win situation," Van Buren said. "GSP & L made a film about our geothermal generating system. When we started, the script had a scene showing bow a hunter named William Elliott discovered this place in 1847. He shot a grizzly bear, then looked up from his rifle sights and saw steam gushing from the ground. Well, some wildlife people read the script and said we ought not to show a grizzly being killed because bears are now protected here. So . . . The script was rewritten. In the film the hunter misses. The bear gets away."

A radio reporter with a tape machine going asked, "What's wrong with that?"

“The descendants of William Elliott threatened to sue us. They said their ancestor was a famous hunter and a crack shot. He wouldn't have missed the grizzly; he'd have shot it. Therefore the film maligned his reputation-and the family's."

"I remember that," the L.A. Timesman said.

Van Buren added: “The point I'm making is: In advance of anything we do-as a public utility-we can be certain we'll be kicked in the butt from one direction or the other, sometimes both."

"Would you prefer us to weep now?" Nancy Molineaux inquired. "Or later?"

The TV cameraman rapped on the bus door and was readmitted.

"If everyone's ready we'll move on to lunch," Van Buren said. She motioned to the bus driver. "Let's go."

A feature writer from New West magazine asked her, "Any booze, Tess?"

"Maybe. If everyone agrees it's off the record." As she looked around inquiringly there were calls of "Okay," "Off the record," and "That's a deal."

"In that case-yes, drinks before lunch."

Two or three in the bus gave a ragged cheer.

Behind the exchange was a piece of recent history.

Two years earlier GSP & L had been generous in supplying food and liquor during a similar press tour. The press representatives had eaten and imbibed with gusto, then, in published reports, some had sniped at GSP & L for extravagant entertaining at a time of rising utility bills. As a result, food supplied to the press nowadays was deliberately modest and, unless an off-the-record pledge was given, liquor was withheld.

The stratagem worked. Whatever else the press criticized, they now kept silent* about their own care and feeding.

The bus traveled about a mile within the geothermal field's rugged terrain, over narrow roads, uneven in places, winding between wellheads, generator buildings and the ever-present maze of hissing, steaming pipes. There were few other vehicles. Because of danger from scalding steam, the public was banned from the area and all visitors escorted.

At one point the bus passed a huge switching and transformer yard. From here, high voltage transmission lines on towers carried power across the mountains to a pair of substations forty miles away, where it was funneled into the backbone of the Golden State Power & Light electric system.

On a small, asphalted plateau were several house trailers which served as offices, as well as living quarters, for on-site crews. The bus balted beside them. Teresa Van Buren led the way into one trailer where places had been set on trestle tables. Inside she told a whitecoated kitchen helper,

"Okay, open the tiger cage." He produced a key and unlocked a wall cabinet to reveal liquor, wine, and mixes. A moment later a bucket of ice was brought in and the PR director told the others, "Everybody help yourselves."

Most were on their second drink when the sound of an aircraft engine overhead became audible, then grew quickly in volume. From the trailer's windows several people watched a small helicopter descending. It was painted in GSP & L's orange and white and bore the company insignia. It alighted immediately outside and the rotors slowed and stopped. A door at the front of the fuselage opened. Nim Goldman clambered out.

Moments later Nim joined the group inside the trailer. Teresa Van Buren announced, "I think most of you know Mr. Goldman. He's here to answer questions."

"I'll put the first question," a TV correspondent said cheerfully. "Can I mix you a drink?"

Nim grinned. "Thanks. A vodka and tonic."

"My, my!" Nancy Molineaux observed. "Aren't you the important one, to come by helicopter when the rest of us rated a bus!"

Nim regarded the young, attractive black woman cagily. He remembcred their previous encounter and clash; also Teresa Van Buren's assessment of Ms. Molineaux as an outstanding newspaperwoman. Nim still thought she was a bitch.

"If it's of any interest," he said, "I had some other work to do this morning, which is why I left later than you and came the way I did."

Nancy Molineaux was not deterred. "Do all the utility executives use helicopters when they feel like it?"

"Nancy," Van Buren said sharply, "you know damn well they don't."

"Our company," Nim volunteered, "owns and operates a half-dozen small aircraft, including two helicopters. Mainly they are used for patrolling transmission lines, checking mountain snow levels, conveying urgent supplies, and in other emergencies. Occasionally-very occasionally-one will convey a company executive if the reason is important. I was told this session was."

"Are you implying that now you're not so sure?"

"Since you ask, Miss Molineaux," Nim said coldly, "I'll admit to having doubts."

"Hey, knock it off, Nancy!" a voice called from the rear. “The rest of us are not interested in this."

Ms. Molineaux wheeled on her colleagues. "Well, I am. I'm concerned about how the public's money is squandered, and if you aren't, you should be."

“The purpose of being here," Van Buren reminded them all, "is to view our geothermal operations and talk about . . ."

"No!" Ms. Molineaux interrupted. "That's your purpose. The press decides its own purposes, which may include some of yours, but also anything else we happen to see or hear and choose to write about."

"She's right, of course." the comment came from a mild-mannered man in rimless glasses, representing the Sacramento Bee.

"Tess," Nim told Van Buren as he sipped his vodka and tonic, I just decided I prefer my job to yours."

Several people laughed as the PR director shrugged.

"If all the horseshit's finished," Nancy Molineaux said, "I'd like to know the purchase price of that fancy eggbeater outside, and how much an hour it costs to operate."

"I'll inquire," Van Buren told her, "and if the figures are available, and if we decide to make them public, I'll make an announcement tomorrow. On the other hand, if we decide it's internal company business, and none of yours, I'll report that."

"In which case," Ms. Molineaux said, unperturbed, "I'll find out some other way."