July 2005

Mounting concern over power-plant pollution

By David Grant Long and Gail Binkly

Concern is mounting locally about the pollution produced by area power plants and a proposal to build a new coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Reservation.

On June 18, some 100 citizens gathered at a rally in Shiprock, N.M., to say “dooda” (Navajo for no) to the proposal for the $2 billion, 1,500-megawatt Dsert Rock Power Plant that would be built south of Kirtland in the Nenahnezad chapter, near the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. The plant would provide energy for areas such as Phoenix, but not for the reservation itself.

That same day, the League of Women Voters in Montezuma County, which is pushing for more equipment in the Four Corners to monitor the pollutants produced by power plants, heard a presentation about the toxic metal mercury.

Protestors at proposed Desert Rock Power Plant

Meanwhile, a report is due shortly from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division regarding fish-tissue sampling conducted last summer at McPhee and Narraguinnep reservoirs in Montezuma County. Those reservoirs currently carry mercury advisories warning anglers to eat only limited quantities of certain fish.

The advisories were based on samples taken in 1993, according to Bob McConnell of the water-quality division. He said the office has been swamped with work but he hopes to have a report compiled and released later this summer that will show whether the fish in the two reservoirs have more or less mercury than before.

The Shiprock rally was organized by Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (CARE), along with the Dooda Desert Rock Power Plant Committee and the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Citizens listened to speeches, signed petitions, and viewed posters such as: “Sithe Energy = The Phantom Menace,” and “They breathe this (showing blue skies) and buy cheap power. We breathe this (showing haze) and don’t need more.”

Joey Valencia and Shane Mason, both of Hogback, N.M., who walked along Highway 64 carrying signs protesting the plant, said they live near the San Juan Generating Station and are concerned about the haze they regularly see in the air.

“The haze is bad,” Valencia said. Lucille Willie, 27, of Burnham, N.M., said she lives 30 miles from the proposed plant site. She said she sees a yellow smog in the morning and worries about the effects it has on her sheep and horses, as well as wildlife and the entire ecosystem. “Pollution kills a bunch of plants,” she said. Growing up by the Navajo Coal Mine, she said, she saw how the hills where she played as a child were transformed into flat barren stretches with “hardly any plants.”

“Everything is all dead,” she said. “You can’t even go into the lake (Morgan Lake) because the water smells.”

She said she knows many people favor the plant because of the prosperity it might bring, but others oppose it. “A lot of elderlies don’t want it, but they’re afraid to speak up,” she said. “But I think you have to be like a bear, not like an ant.”

Earl Tulley, Diné CARE vice president, who lives in the Blue Gap area, said any type of economic development that happens in Indian country or among people of color seems to be “the dregs of industry.”

“The people I associate with are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said. “They get cancer, they get respiratory ailments. This is aside from the traditional diseases of alcoholism and diabetes. But all of these are preventable.”

He accused the plant’s backers of glossing over the effects it will have. “The Diné Power Authority is sugarcoating this industry in the name of making sure we are gainfully employed.”

But he added that another point that had to be considered is conservation. “The main problem is that we as the consumers need to cut down,” he said. “Do we need four TVs in every house? All these conveniences are taking their toll. That is where all the juice is going.”

He said fighting the power plant is difficult in the political climate of the Four Corners, which he labeled “Bush country.” But there is definitely a large segment of the Navajo population that is worried about the plant’s health effects, he said. “People are analytical thinkers at this point.”

Certainly members of the League of Women Voters are becoming analytical thinkers on the subject of power plants. While the rally was going on, the league was listening to a presentation by Sylvia Oliva, an air-quality consultant who operates an ambient-airquality station at Mesa Verde National Park.

The station is the only monitoring site for airborne mercury in Montezuma County. The league, which has not taken a position on the new power-plant proposal, is asking for permanent monitoring stations on the Dolores and Mancos rivers.

The league is also applying for a grant to set up a panel discussion with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Indian Affairs about the proposed power plant. The EPA’s regional San Francisco office will make the final decision on whether to grant approval to the new plant and what conditions to set on it.

Oliva said there is a growing awareness of mercury’s toxic effects. The element is naturally present in coal and is released as it’s burned. It’s estimated that a third of mercury pollution occurs naturally while two-thirds is manmade, coming from discarded mercury, waste incinerators, coal-fired power plants and refineries.

However, pinpointing the source of mercury pollution is not as easy as it may sound, because airborne mercury can be carried for thousands of miles. Seventeen percent of people living in polar regions have mercury present in their bodies at toxic levels, Oliva said. Half the mercury pollution worldwide comes from Asia, she said.

Mercury exists in different forms. Inorganic forms are poorly absorbed by living organisms, but inorganic mercury can be converted to an organic form called methylmercury, which is easily absorbed and more dangerous. When inorganic mercury is deposited in bodies of water, either by being leached from ores or by being deposited from the air, it is changed to methylmercury through exposure to sunlight and consumption by microorganisms.

Areas in Colorado and New Mexico had some of the highest airborne mercury levels in the United States in 2002, much of which was attributable to huge wildfires in the region, Oliva said. Wildfires release the element from trees and soil.

However, in other years when there were major fires burning, mercury wasn’t as high, said League President Mary Lou Asbury, who isn’t convinced the fires were the major factor.

She said that’s why the league believes more mercury-monitoring is needed in the Four Corners, to provide more data about where the pollutant is coming from.

“Mesa Verde’s monitoring is there, but we have no idea whether it applies to the valley at all,” she said. “We don't know until we do our own monitoring here.”

The group is asking for:

  • One permanent mercury monitoring station from the EPA to measure airborne mercury collected as part of precipitation. This wet-deposition equipment costs $12,000; lab analysis is $7,000 a year for weekly samples, and data analysis is $4,000 a year, she said.
  • Fixed-site monitoring at spots along the Dolores and Mancos rivers, rather than the “dip monitoring” that occurs now on the Dolores only. This would be the responsibility of the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Portable ozone monitors from the EPA. Such monitors cost $21,000 each, Asbury said, plus $13,000 a year for operation and data analysis. The monitor must be attached to a weather station, so the station would need an upgrade to fit it for ozone monitoring. The ozone monitors are needed because ozone is also a concern regionally. Ozone is a colorless, odorless pollutant created when exhaust from combustion engines and coalfired power plants (nitrogen oxides) reacts with oil- and gas-field emissions (volatile organic compounds) and with sunlight. High ozone levels contribute to asthma and other lung problems.

Ozone levels have been gradually rising over the last several years, according to data collected from the monitoring station at Mesa Verde.

“We’ve already had some ozone levels out of compliance at the park this year on an hourly basis,” Asbury said. The EPA’s maximum standard for ground-level ozone is 84 parts per billion. Levels at Mesa Verde have spiked into the high 80s at times, Asbury said.

“Eighty-five is where non-compliance begins. Where asthmatics and people with lung problems have difficulty starts at 50,” she said.

“The numbers are going up. It is not going down, it’s upward. And we don’t have a new power plant yet, so don’t ask me why it’s going up,” she said.

The natural-gas and coalbedmethane wells proliferating throughout the San Juan Basin are considered a large factor in ozone pollution regionally. Combustion engines also cause ozone.

The league has also asked for assistance and monitoring equipment from the BLM in New Mexico and Colorado. Asbury said Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar’s office has offered to ask the EPA, BLM and USGS to support the proposals. Sen. Wayne Allard and U.S. Rep. John Salazar have also been asked for support but have not yet committed.

The Montezuma County commissioners and Cortez City Council have passed resolutions calling for the additional monitoring.

Officials from plant developer Sithe Global, based in Houston, have said the proposed plant would be one of the cleanest and most modern ever built and would bring up to 200 jobs to the Navajo Nation.

But ongoing pollution from the two other nearby power plants has sparked concern about the accumulation of toxins in the atmosphere. The Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, N.M., was recently named the No. 1 emitter of total nitrogen oxide in the nation in 2004. It was the 24th worst in carbon-dioxide emissions and was No. 37 in the release of mercury, according to the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C.

The San Juan Generating Station near Waterflow, N.M., was the nation’s 21st worst emitter of nitrogen oxide in 2004 and was tied with the Four Corners Power Plant in the emission of mercury.

However, PNM, which operates the San Juan Generating Station, announced earlier this year that it would install mercury-emissions reduction technology as well as technology to reduce the particulates, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides it emits.

Asbury said she is especially concerned because there are additional power plants on the drawing board in the Four Corners, including one south of Chaco Canyon and several along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

“That’s the scariest part. I’ll be dead long before these will come on line, but people’s children and grandchildren will be affected by this, not just here, but throughout the country.”

Asbury said she hopes citizens’ interest will persuade the EPA to take a hard look before approving the Desert Rock Power Plant.

“I’m hoping there’s enough commotion the EPA will maybe ask, demand, before they grant the permit, that they have to clean up the old power plants. This was done by the EPA in Colorado concerning a new power plant being built in Pueblo — they demanded that the new power plant that wanted to be built in Pueblo had to clean up the old one before they would grant the permit.

“There’s a possibility we could come out of this thing ahead. It just depends on what the EPA does and how many people, organizations, government entities, tribal chapters and so forth get involved.”