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A hazy future for the Four Corners? Concerns about a new power plant are igniting a furor over regional air quality
By Gail Binkly
Anthony Lee, a middle-aged man, stood nervously before a microphone in the cavernous interior of the Shiprock, N.M., High School auditorium on Oct. 4.
On the stage sat officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, hearing public comments about the proposed Desert Rock power plant. The EPA reps had asked speakers to tell who they were representing. “I represent my kids, my grandkids, my great-great-grandkids and so on down the road,” Lee said clearly. Then he spoke about the haze that hangs over the Four Corners.
“When I was 8 or 9, I went to the La Plata Mountains hunting with my grandfather,” Lee said. “I could see Ship Rock [the formation], the mountains behind us, the Chuskas, all over.”
That was some 40 years ago. Recently he went back, and everything looked different. “You can barely see Ship Rock. You can barely see the mountains. It’s just so ugly,” he said. “It’s hard to describe what it was like 40 years ago and what it is now. It looks ugly, period,” he repeated.
Lee said he complained to the Navajo tribal government, but that they are like “a jackass with a carrot” when it comes to the proposed power plant. “They more or less took this out of greed,” he charged.
He likened the Desert Rock proposal to the rosy benefits that were supposed to come with uranium-mining decades ago.
“We were promised the same thing with this uranium, but a lot of us paid dearly,” he said, his voice breaking. “I was one of those, with my father gone. And I believe this power plant is going to have the same effect on our grandkids farther down the road. The U.S. government better have some money put aside if any respiratory problems arise.
“I oppose this project 125 percent — 200 percent,” he said. “I like to see the reservation clean. I like to see the Four Corners clean.”
Lee was one of about a dozen people who spoke that afternoon at the first of two public hearings held in the town of Shiprock regarding the EPA’s draft air-quality permit for the Desert Rock plant. Most speakers opposed the new, $2 billion, coal-fired plant.
To be operated by Houston-based Sithe Global Power LLC, the 1,500- megawatt plant is proposed for land on the Navajo reservation some 25 miles southwest of Farmington. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has said he supports the project “in the strongest possible terms” because of its economic benefits.
But the power plant has become the trigger for an outpouring of concern about the Four Corners’ air quality. Nelson Lee Simms of the Navajos’ Nenahnezad Chapter told the EPA he lives just a few miles from the San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant in San Juan County, N.M. “We already have two smoke dragons,” he said, adding that one day his children might blame the Navajo tribe “for steam-cooking everybody” through greenhouse gases.
“The Navajo [council] delegates don’t listen to us,” he said. “They’re all cronies. We say, try something else. There’s wind power. It doesn’t cause smoke.
“You’re our last hope,” he told the EPA officials.
The final straw?
The furor over Desert Rock is in some ways curious, because the new plant clearly would be cleaner than those already in the area.
The 1,800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station near Waterflow, N.M., and the 2,040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, N.M., are among the nation’s worst polluters. The latter was ranked first in the nation by a D.C.-based environmental group for nitrogen-oxide emissions in 2004. Together they spew 67,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 37,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere annually. By contrast, Desert Rock would emit 3,500 tons of each pollutant, according to Sithe officials.
But while the tribe’s leadership has embraced the proposed plant and the economic boost it would provide, many Navajos and non-Najavos alike see it as a straw with the potential to break the camel’s back in terms of the region’s air quality. They believe air in the Four Corners needs to be fiercely protected from looming threats posed by more cars, more power plants and a huge increase in the number of natural- gas wells in the San Juan Basin. Managing overall air quality in the region is complicated by the fact there are many different jurisdictions involved — four states; three Indian tribes; BLM, national-forest and National Park Service lands; and numerous counties and cities.
The Four Corners falls under three different regions of the EPA, points out Mary Lou Asbury of Cortez. New Mexico is in Region 6, which has a Dallas office; Arizona and the Navajo reservation lie in Region 9, based in San Francisco; and Utah and Colorado are in Region 8, headquartered in Denver.
Asbury and the League of Women Voters, of which she is a member, have been badgering area politicians and agency officials for more air-quality monitoring sites throughout the region and better emissions controls. The league takes no stand on the Desert Rock permit.
“I think if we don’t get very strict standards and the best available control technology on the power plants that are being built, the air quality in the area can only diminish,” Asbury said.
She noted that yet another plant, a 300-megawatt facility near Chaco Canyon, N.M., is in the works, too. However, she said, she’s cautiously optimistic because of increasing concern about air quality, the formation a year ago of a Four Corners Air Quality Task Force, and pending efforts to clean up existing plants. Public Service Company of New Mexico is investing $270 million in new technology to cut emissions at its San Juan plant.
The Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and New Mexico Environment Department had sued the company in 2002 for violations of the Clean Air Act. A settlement agreement was reached in 2005.
The new processes the company will implement are expected to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide by 35 percent, sulfur dioxide by 65 percent, particulates by 70 percent and mercury by 75 percent.
And, also in response to a Sierra Club lawsuit, the EPA is proposing Federal Implementation Plans to regulate emissions from the Four Corners Power Plant, as well as the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. The proposed FIPs will set limits on emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulates — though not on carbon dioxide or mercury.
Those two plants had been operating essentially without regulations because they are on reservation land and it was unclear who had jurisdiction over them. Eventually it was decided that the EPA would set rules and the Navajo Nation’s own EPA will administer them.
But despite the clean-up of the old plants, the debate rages over Desert Rock. Can the region bear another large power plant?
Good news, bad news
According to one EPA official, it can. Colleen McKaughan of Region 9 was quoted in the Durango Herald as saying that the region’s air is clean enough to absorb more pollution. McKaughan did not return a phone call from the Free Press.
In issuing its draft permit for Desert Rock, the EPA found that the proposed plant would not push pollution in the area higher than federal standards. Levels of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — two major pollutants from power plants, and contributors to acid rain — fall within normal limits in the Four Corners, experts say. Likewise, particulates — fine parti- cles produced by power plants, diesel vehicles and fuel-burning — fall within standards.
But the Four Corners is pushing the limit on ozone, a gas that is linked to respiratory conditions such as asthma. Ozone is created through the interaction of nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and sunlight. Power plants aren’t the only emitters of VOCs and nitrogen oxide — oil and gas wells and motor vehicles all contribute to the problem.
Ozone levels in the area generally stay under the federal standard of 85 parts per billion, the level at which significant health effects may occur, but sometimes spike above that. The three-year average at monitoring sites in northwestern New Mexico is around 76 ppb. The levels in Southwest Colorado are generally only about 20 percent lower than those of Denver, despite its much-higher population.
In 2000, ozone levels in northwestern New Mexico surged higher than anywhere else in the state, prompting the New Mexico Environment Department to enter into an Early Action Compact with the EPA, San Juan County, and three cities to implement a plan to improve air quality.
Another pollutant of concern is mercury, a toxic element released when coal is burned. Mercury is monitored at Mesa Verde National Park, both for wet deposition (precipitation) and dry. Wet-deposition amounts are relatively low because the park is in arid country. However, concentrations of mercury in rainfall are among the highest in the nation, according to a draft report by the Four Corners Air Quality Task Force.
Desert Rock’s mercury emission would be much lower than the existing plants’ — measured in pounds vs. tons, Maisano said.
But Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group, said that may not help the overall picture much. Under the Bush administration’s new mercury rules, dirtier power plants can “buy” the right to pollute more from plants that pollute less.
“Four Corners and San Juan [plants] emitted over 2,000 tons of mercury in 2001,” he said. “Do they go to the Navajo Nation and broker a deal” so they can keep emitting high levels because Desert Rock’s are low? he asked.
Lori Goodman of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, a grassroots environmental group, believes Navajos have already been harmed by exposure to pollutants from power plants. At the Shiprock hearing, she told the EPA officials, “You’re adding insult to injury by saying the air is clean enough for another power plant.”
Goodman said the Desert Rock proposal violates the intent of Executive Order 12898, issued by President Clinton in 1994, which was designed to ensure that low-income and minority communites don’t suffer disproportionately from the adverse impacts of federal projects. She said all the communities surrounding the power plant are below poverty level.
“To put another power plant in here — that’s genocidal,” she said.
Goodman gave out flyers saying the Navajo Nation exports 1,200 percent more power than it consumes; that nearly one-third of Navajo homes don’t have electricity; and that the power plant would use 4,500 acre-feet of water per year, while Navajo families hauling water would pay a rate 30 times higher for water than that paid by the plant.
‘A wealth of revenue’
“Obviously we understand the concerns of the community,” said Frank Maisono, spokesman for Sithe Global. “We understand there are concerns about previous facilities. We’re going to do everything we can to have one of the state-of-the-art environmental facilities for coal-burning plants.
“But people in the Four Corners, especially those on the Navajo Nation, have to understand this is an immense economic-development project for the Navajo Nation. It means a wealth of revenue, resources, tax money and job opportunities.”
The plant would create an estimated 1,000 jobs during construction and 200 permanent jobs when built, proponents say, with Native Americans given preference in hiring. Another 200 jobs would be created at BHP Billiton’s Navajo Mine, the coal source. Payments to the Navajo Nation over the first 25 years would be approximately $50 million annually in coal royalties, taxes and water payments. The tribe can opt to become an equity partner with Sithe and own 25 percent of the plant.
In addition, more electricity is needed, Maisano said. “We have a massive need for new power in the region. We’re doing this in the most environmentally responsible way we can.”
Demand for electricity has doubled in San Juan County, N.M., since 1996, the Farmington Daily Times reported recently. Much of the increase comes from oil and gas development, with compressor stations and well-site motors all requiring electricity. None of the power created by Desert Rock would go to the Navajos. Instead, it would feed the needs of other customers in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
The Navajo tribal council voted 66-7 in May 2006 to approve a 50-year lease agreement with Sithe and the tribe’s Diné Power authority to build the plant.
‘Worse than terrorism’
But, clearly, not all Navajos want to see Desert Rock constructed. Members of Diné CARE insist there is inadequate health care already on the reservation, respiratory illnesses such as asthma are rampant, and Desert Rock would only worsen the situation.
Sarah White of Diné CARE said she visited every home in the vicinity of the Four Corners power plant, seeking signatures on a petition opposing Desert Rock. “It seems like every home that I have visited, somebody has a health problem. Lung, heart, kidney disease and joint disease. It all comes from the power plant.”
For two years Diné CARE has been asking the Indian Health Service for indepth health studies of people near the power plants, but to no avail, White said.
She said she has lived “right underneath” the Four Corners plant since it was built some 40 years ago, and she has severe asthma for which she takes steroids. “My son has asthma, my granddaughter has asthma and my other grandson was diagnosed a couple months ago,” she said. “I know about 20 people that have asthma.” Goodman said pollution — particularly mercury — may cause other ailments as well.
“The kids at Ojo Amarillo, near Napi, [N.M.] — there’s lots of kids that have autisum from the mercury. There are no studies of these health impacts,” Goodman said. “We need baseline health data.”
“It’s just so sad,” said Andy Bessler, regional representative for the Sierra Club in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Folks in the San Juan Basin are really suffering. The air is killing people. I’d say it’s worse than terrorism in terms of the amount of deaths. How can we do energy without killing people? That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”
Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance supports the call for further health studies. In written comments to the EPA, he said, “Public health has not been properly evaluated or secured for citizens of the Four Corners region in regards to air pollution. High incidences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are prevalent in the Four Corners region.”
He called for a health analysis of the communities near the San Juan and Four Corners power plants and the proposed Desert Rock plant, examining asthma levels by age group and ethnic background, ER visits in correlation with daily air quality, and regional levels of autism, cancer and stroke compared to other areas.
But many area residents are also deeply concerned with something less tangible: beauty. They have a passionate desire to retain the clean, stunning vistas for which the region is known, the soaring views of mesas and canyonlands that are increasingly disappearing under a vague haze.
Visibility is considered the most sensitive air-quality concern at Mesa Verde, though the park also monitors acid rain, particulates, and mercury, according to information on the Internet. Mesa Verde’s public information officer did not return a phone call from the Free Press. The park’s web site says visibility is “degrading significantly on the worst visibility days,” according to an analysis of 1990-1999 data. However, the report also says visibility at Mesa Verde is as good as or better than most other national parks. Mesa Verde is a Class I area under the Clean Air Act, meaning it has highest priority for protection from pollution.
The EPA cannot consider emotional appeals when making its decision on the air-quality permit for Desert Rock, said Robert Baker, an environmental engineeer with the agency’s Region 9 San Francisco office.
“To really hope to influence the permit, you need either a legal or scientific comment,” said Baker, who as of Oct. 25 had received around 60 comments and was anticipating more. “The emotional ones are most valuable for weighing public interest.”
To get the conditions of the permit changed or the permit denied, people have to show that the EPA made an error in its analysis, such as doing its modeling incorrectly or failing to include key pollution sources.
But Baker said he does not blame people for being concerned about future air quality in the Four Corners.
“People are upset by the degradation of visibility and I don’t blame them, because it’s beautiful country,” he said. “And lord knows those existing power plants are not helping things, but we have really pulled their emissions down.”
He said the EPA’s final decision on the air-quality permit, and then on a separate Environmental Impact Statement for the plant, will take into account factors such as the existing oil and gas wells that pockmark the 7,800- square-mile San Juan Basin in Colorado and New Mexico. Such wells and compressors emit nitrogen oxide (an estimated 29,000 tons per year in San Juan County), particulates, carbon monoxide and VOCs (an estimated 6,900 tons).
“We are including monitored ambient air quality, which is catching the existing facilities out there, but as minor sources that aren’t normally specifically included in the model. It’s caught as part of the monitored ambient air quality,” Baker said.
However, he said, the analysis does not take into account the impacts of future wells. The BLM has authorized some 10,000 new wells, mostly for natural gas, in the San Juan Basin.
“One thing we also don’t catch is increasing population — more people, cars, more wood stoves,” Baker said.
A better future?
Still, the Sierra Club’s Bessler is hopeful the future can be better. “Based on what I’ve seen with Desert Rock and the Four Corners [power plant] EPA processes, I’d say things are looking really good,” Bessler said. “The EPA is taking it seriously. I’m optimistic.”
But, Bessler added, much depends on finding cleaner, alternative energy sources and promoting energy conservation. Eisenfeld agrees. “For us to be in the year 2006 with 154 coal-fired power plants proposed across the country is ridiculous,” he said.