A plan to clean up the Four Corners Power Plant

Four Corners Power Plant to reduce emissions; coal mine to be reviewed

The air we breathe may soon be a bit cleaner, thanks to a new plan that lowers emissions at the Four Corners Power Plant, a coal-fired, electric generating station located in northern New Mexico on the Navajo Nation in Fruitland.

This map shows power plants and proposed plants near Mesa Verde. Courtesy of National Park Service

Under a preliminary agreement with federal and Navajo tribal regulators, Arizona Public Service, which operates the 50-yearold facility, would permanently shut down three of the plant’s most polluting units by 2014 and upgrade the remaining two with the latest pollution-control technology by 2018.

The result, explained Raju Bisht of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, will be 60,000 tons fewer pollutants emitted into the air and onto the land and water depended on by local residents and wildlife.

“That is an 86 percent total reduction in emissions, it is very significant, and a smart decision by APS, not just because of the fines for non-compliance, but for the community,” Bisht said.

The ubiquitous brown haze that creeps up through Towaoc, Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park from the coal-fired plants to the south will diminish to a degree once the plan is implemented, predicted Bisht.

“The Four Corners Power plant is not the only issue, the San Juan Generating plant is also a concern, but when it all goes into effect, we expect the high levels of pollutants in this area coming from the power plants to go down.”

Regulators estimate that emissions for mercury will be reduced by 61 percent, particulates by 43 percent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 36 percent, carbon dioxide by 30 percent and sulfur dioxide by 24 percent. Water usage within the San Juan basin will also be reduced by 6,000 acre-feet per year due to reduced plant capacity. Under the U.S.’s new Clean Air Act rules regulating regional haze, coal-fired power plants are required to upgrade generating units to comply with tougher air-pollution standards using best available retrofit technology (BART).

Under threat of a complete shutdown, APS negotiated a proposed compromise with the EPA last month to decommission three of its generating units and retrofit the remaining two with the most advanced scrubbers to lower toxic emissions.

Allan Bunnell, APS spokesman, told the Free Press the proposed deal, which includes a 25-year extension to the plant’s operations lease, protects the environment while preserving essential electrical power for the Southwest and beyond.

“When we proposed our plan to the EPA, they saw value in it because it dramatically decreases the carbon footprint for the region. We believe it is good for the Navajo Nation, for the environment and the economy and accommodates electricity demand,” Bunnell said.

Job losses are inevitable as the plant downsizes, but there will be no mass layoffs, Bunnell said; rather, worker positions will be eliminated through attrition. Currently, 75 percent of the plant’s employees are Native American.

“The EPA negotiations were a productive process with a lot of give-and-take from both ends. Rather than close down a major electricity source for the region, we worked to keep moving forward with the plant and continue to be a strong employer for the Native American community.”

Under the plan, APS will gain majority ownership of the plant’s remaining generators through a buyout from Southern California Edison, a deal worth $294 million, Bunnell explained. The scrubber upgrades required under BART are estimated to cost the company $200 million.

The 2,100-megawatt plant currently provides power to 500,000 homes in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas. The new deal reduces coal consumption, and lowers the output to 1,500 megawatts.

Right of way for the plant’s 345 transmission lines will also be reviewed under the environmental impact statement, and no new lines are proposed.

Scrutinizing the Navajo Mine

The coal operation that feeds the power plant is also being scrutinized for environmental impacts as it continues to expand. BHP Navajo Mine Company operates the mine, located on the reservation south of the plant and connected by a rail line. The Navajo Mine provides a steady supply of coal for the Four Corners Power Plant and also employs mostly Native Americans.

For the first time since mining began in 1957, the Navajo mine’s expansion plans have been tapped for a full environmental impact statement. In addition, BHP’s application to renew its existing permit from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation will be analyzed in the EIS.

As one section of the lease is mined out, additional mining operating permits must be approved by OSM, the lead agency for the EIS process, explained Rick Williamson, OSM manager for Indian lands. But now the review has been expanded to a full EIS, which is much more comprehensive.

“We will prepare our assessment of environmental impacts and negotiated mitigation plans and hand that over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who provides a biological opinion [on the plan],” he said. “The EIS will evaluate all types of public issues and concerns — air pollution, water quality, endangered species, cultural resources, sacred areas and burial sites. We work closely with the Navajo government.”

The large coal seam is under a 33,000-acre lease permit and produces 8.5 million tons of coal annually. The mine is an open-pit operation that extracts coal using surface- and strip-mining techniques.

In spring of this year, BHP submitted an application to OSM to develop and additional 5,600 acres, known as the Pinabete Permit area, within its existing Navajo mine lease. The new mining zone would provide coal for the power plant for 25 years.

The area is not heavily populated, Williamson said, but two families would have to be relocated. Also as part of the proposed action, 2.8 miles of the Burnham Road would be realigned along the east side of the existing mining lease as a safety measure.

Several washes would be impacted by the new mining area, and would require mitigation, reported Deanna Cummings, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Cottonwood and Pinabete Arroyos are ephemeral streams that pass through the proposed permit area and eventually drain into the Chaco River, a tributary of the nearby San Juan River.

“Any time there is discharge of dredged or filled material into waters, a 404 permit is required and we will regulate that,” Cummings said during a public hearing in Durango. “Any losses of stream have to be mitigated through habitat improvement.”

Often such mitigation is done elsewhere as offsets for waterways lost in the path of mining operations. The Corps and BHP are researching how to enhance the habitat at nearby Chinde Arroyo as part of the reclamation plan.

According to a press release, “Chinde Arroyo receives irrigation return flow from the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry fields upstream. BHP is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine mitigation possibilities at the site. Hydrologists determined that the site has great potential to provide compensatory mitigation . . . (including) measures to stabilize, preserve, and enhance portions of Chinde Arroyo, and create riparian and wetland habitat adjacent to Chinde Arroyo.” An alternative site along the San Juan River in the Nenahnezad Chapter could also fulfill mitigation requirements.

The environmental-review process will also include consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on endangered or threatened species potentially impacted by the mine operation, including effects on golden and bald eagles, Southwestern willow flycatcher, ferruginous hawk, Colorado pike minnow, razorback sucker, New Mexico jumping mouse, kit fox and collared lizard.

‘Archaic’ technology

Mike Eisenfeld, who monitors and researches energy issues for the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, was cautiously optimistic about the scaled-down operations at Four Corners Power Plant. But, he said, more needs to be done to cure society’s addiction to fossil fuels.

“From the perspective of reducing air pollution I’d say that is a positive thing, but what we are saying as an organization is that this area has been relied on for energy export for so long – it was considered an energy sacrifice zone in the 1970s – and it is incumbent on the government to help the area to transition to other areas of economic development,” he said.

“Is it in everyone’s best interest to just slap on retrofits, or would it be better to use that investment for something like using mine lands for concentrated solar, utilizing existing transmission lines? We would like to be part of the new energy economy and evolve the discussion in that direction.”

To protect public health and reduce regional haze, bigger solutions are needed, Eisenfeld added. Sixteen national parks are impacted by the pollution generated by power plants in the Four Corners, including Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon.

“We get all the pollution, and the cities get all the so-called ‘cheap’ power. Coal is not a cheap way to generate electricity any more. The costs are going higher and higher, and it is our responsibility to point that out,” he said. “We are blessed with this incredible landscape and it is getting hazed over. The tourism and iconic vistas are just incredibly important. We need to start thinking about the future for our region and how it relates to public health.

“The technology associated with Four Corners Power Plant when it was built in 1962 is archaic. Things have changed a lot so we would like raise the bar and bring other energy opportunities into the equation.”

The decision to conduct a full EIS was a victory for Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, which sued OSM for failing to protect endangered species from coal pollution and lack of regulatory review authorizing the mine’s expansion.

“We have worked for decades to get an accurate assessment of the impacts from the Four Corners Power Plant/Navajo Mine,” stated Anna Frazier, of Diné CARE, in a press release.

“Navajo communities have endured significant impacts to water, land, air, public health and our culture which must now be considered. We are hopeful that publichealth data from Indian Health Services, Centers for Disease Control and the EPA will be incorporated correctly in the EIS.”

The draft EIS is expected to be completed by fall 2013, at which point there will be more opportunity for public comment and input.

A public scoping process to help determine environmental and social issues was conducted recently during nine regional meetings. The public can still submit comments on the mine expansion and power-plant proposal via email at FCCPPNavajoEnerg yEIS@osmre. gov, or by mail to Mr. Marcelo Calle, OSM Western Region, 1999 Broadway, Suite 3320 Denver Colo. 80202. Comments must arrive or be postmarked by Sept. 17. For more information and documents on the project, go to http://www.wrcc.osmre.gov/FCPPEIS.shtm or call 303-293-5035.

Read more from September 2012