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Four Corners Coal Complex to Face Full Environmental Review for the First Time in its 50-year History
The federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement has announced plans to undertake a combined “Environmental Impact Statement and Endangered Species Act” consultation for the entire coal complex at the Four Corners Power Plant, which is located in northwestern New Mexico along the San Juan River. It will be the first comprehensive environmental analysis of the power plant and the Navajo Mine that feeds it in the complex’s 50-year history. The study is expected to take years to complete.
The decision comes as the agency faces two pending lawsuits from Diné (Navajo) activists and conservation groups related to permitting actions at the complex. One suit challenges the agency’s failure to protect endangered species from coal pollution under the Endangered Species Act; another challenges the adequacy of a National Environmental Policy Act review authorizing the mine’s expansion.
The Four Corners Power Plant provides electricity to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It emits more nitrogen oxides than any other coal-fired power plant in the United States. Nitrogen oxides are associated with respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes. The plant also emits CO2, mercury, selenium and other heavy metals into the air and water, further polluting nearby communities, farmlands, lakes, rivers and habitat for endangered species.
“We have worked for decades to get an accurate assessment of the impacts from the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine,” said Anna Frazier of Diné CARE. “Navajo communities have endured significant impacts to water, land, air, public health and our culture, which must now be considered. We are hopeful that data from the Indian Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA will be incorporated in the Environmental Impact Statement.”
The effects of coal combustion at the 2,040-megawatt power plant, mining at BHP Billiton’s 13,000-acre Navajo Mine and waste disposal will all be analyzed, as will impacts of right-of-way renewals for transmission line corridors. The Office of Surface Mining will also formally consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that proposed actions at the complex comply with federal laws that protect threatened and endangered species.
Notice of the review invites “environmentally preferred alternatives” to be introduced by the public for analysis, alternatives that could include transition to renewable-energy facilities. Public comments on the development of the draft EIS are due Sept. 17.
Other groups involved in the pending lawsuits commented on the planned environmental review:
“For decades coal pollution has been affecting people, lakes, rivers and farmland in the San Juan Basin, and it’s even driving endangered fish toward extinction,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This long-overdue analysis is an important step along the way to an equitable transition to clean, renewable energy solutions that help people and the environment.”
“Pollution from coal mining and coal-fired power plants threaten New Mexico’s precious water resources,” said Brian Shields, Amigos Bravos executive director. “We are hopeful and pleased that those threats can now be fully analyzed and exposed to public scrutiny.”
“The agency has a responsibility to address pollution from the mine and the power plant as a whole,” said Megan Anderson of the Western Environmental Law Center. “Moreover, it’s just plain common sense for it do so; pretending that the people and environment surrounding this area are suffering impacts from only one source at a time just ignores the fact that this mine and power plant sit next to each other and operate as a mine-to-mouth complex.”
Power Plant Emissions Decision Postponed
Last month the Environmental Protection Agency gave NM officials, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) and other partners 90 days to decide how to address the nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants discharged into the air from the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, the state’s largest single source of energy. The plant also provides power to Arizona, California and Utah.
The 1,800-megawatt power plant, which is over 40 years old, is only about 30 percent efficient. The rest goes out the smokestack. An EPA mandate calls for PNM to equip the plant with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology within five years to reduce haze in the northwest region of the state where there is a large Native American population, as well as national parks and wilderness areas. Obstruction of sacred places by the dark haze is of particular concern to Native people of the Southwest; however, wind currents also transport the haze hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
NM Gov. Susana Martinez and PNM have challenged the EPA order in federal court. The state supports the use of selective non-catalytic reduction technology on the plant’s boilers rather than building steel structures outside the stacks and using SCR. That approach would reportedly will cost $77 to $345 million, compared with the EPA’s plan, which PNM says will cost $750 to $805 million and will result in higher rates for customers. Environmental groups have disputed those projections. Public Regulation Commissioner Doug Howe has suggested that there are other options, such as replacing some of San Juan’s units with natural gas combined-cycle units, using SCR on the others, and augmenting it with renewable energy.
Navajo President Ben Shelly sent a letter to the EPA supporting the state/PNM proposal. The San Juan Generating Station employs almost 400 people, many of them Navajo. There are also many Navajo coal miners.
Navajo Generating Station Contends with EPA Emissions Mandate
The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page, Arizona is one of the coal-fired power plants targeted by the current EPA mandate for emissions cleanup. The proposed rule changes regarding haze would force the 2,250-megawatt plant to install new emissions controls that could cost more than $1.1 billion, according to the manager of the plant, the Salt River Project (SRP). Such costs could force the power plant and the nearby Kayenta coal mine to shut down, the utility says.
A study commissioned by SRP released in February by the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University entitled “Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine: An Economic Impact” states that Arizona’s economy could take a $20 billion hit and loose about 113,000 mining and utility sector jobs, measured from 2011-2044, if the power plant and mine shut down.
The power plant and mine are both on Navajo Nation land and employ mostly Navajo workers; 538 at the power plant and 430 at the mine. The Navajo Nation would also lose about $25 million a year in leasing and royalty fees, the study says.
The NGS provides electricity to customers in Arizona, California and Nevada. It also provides the power for pumping Colorado River water for the Central Arizona Project, which supplies water to central and southern Arizona.
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