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Desert Rock hearings draw hundreds
By Gail Binkly
If Bureau of Indian Affairs officials truly expected only technical comments from the public regarding the draft environmental impact statement for the Desert Rock power plant, they must have been disappointed.
What they got was a little bit of technicality and a torrent of emotion.
Desert Rock has become the most contentious environmental issue in the Four Corners.
A joint project of Houston-based Sithe Global and the Navajos’ Diné Power Authority, it is to be built 25 miles southwest of Farmington, N.M., on Navajo land. But the project has met with concerted resistance from environmentalists who say there are enough power plants befouling the region’s air already.
And recently Gov. Bill Richardson, said Desert Rock would be “a step backwards” in the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
At 10 public hearings held around the Four Corners in July, area residents spoke passionately about possible impacts of the 1,500-megawatt coalfired plant – from increased pollution and worsening health, to prosperity and good jobs.
There were faltering voices, tears, angry denunciations, laughter and standing ovations.
What there wasn’t much of were technical comments about possible deficiencies in the 1,600-page EIS.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Desert Rock project, said by phone from Washington, D.C., that he didn’t learn anything from the hearings he hadn’t known before.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “For the most part, we don’t, and we expected that.”
But he said he was disappointed there were not more comments about ways to improve the project.
“Many just expressed their opinion, and that’s their right, but I was hopeful their comments would be more useful to the process.”
At initial scoping hearings regarding the project, Maisano said, Sithe officials heard so many comments about water scarcity, “it came to our attention that a water-cooled project was not going to work. So we came up with a drycooled one.”
The plant will use 4 million gallons a day, 85 percent less than a traditional power plant, he said.
“When our opponents were trying to run around making a big deal out of water [recently], it really rang hollow,” he said.
Foes of Desert Rock have been asking whether the project might seek water from the Northwestern New Mexico Rural Water Projects Act, a huge water-rights settlement pending before Congress. The settlement includes a pipeline through northwestern New Mexico to Gallup that would carry water from the San Juan River.
But drilling done at the plant site shows that there is enough water in a “very deep well aquifer that would never have been used anyway” to supply the plant, Maisano said. “We’re confident we have the water.”
He said the idea that Desert Rock is seeking San Juan River water is “pure environmental conspiracy theory.”
“There is no grassy knoll in the Four Corners,” Maisano said.
‘The smell of money’
Facilitators at the hearings said the public-comment process is not intended to be a “vote” for or against the project.
But if it were a vote, the verdict would be thumbs-down. The vast majority of speakers at the hearings voiced opposition to Desert Rock.
The power plant would be the third in San Juan County, N.M., and the two old plants – the San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant – are big polluters, although the San Juan plant is spending $270 million to reduce emissions.
A l t h o u g h Desert Rock would be much cleaner than the existing power plants, it would still put 3,500 tons each of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (the precursors to acid rain) into the air every year, along with particulates, 120 pounds of mercury and 10 million to 12 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Not adding to the region’s pollution was a message emphasized by many who spoke at the hearings.
More than 100 turned out for a July 18 hearing at the Ute Mountain Casino south of Cortez, Colo. Of the 44 who spoke, not a single person voiced support for Desert Rock.
Health concerns stemming from additional pollutants topped the list of objections.
Barbara Westmoreland of Montezuma County, a member of the Southwest Colorado Growers, said mercury contamination is permanent – once present, mercury doesn’t leave. She noted that there are already mercury- related fish-consumption warnings at Narraguinnep, Totten and Vallecito reservoirs in Southwest Colorado.
“Who wants to buy food and hay from the little red dot on the map that represents high mercury contamination?” she asked.
“Some say the smell of industry is the smell of money,” agreed her husband, Nelson Westmoreland. “I do sympathize with needing jobs and economic development, but that smell also smells like emphysema and asthma.”
He said Desert Rock should not be built until emissions at the other two plants have been cleaned up – a sentiment echoed by other speakers.
“Until the Four Corners Power Plant meets standards, we are adamantly opposed to another power plant in the Four Corners region,” said Cortez City Manager Hal Shepherd, who presented a resolution by the city council opposing the plant.
Bill Teetzel of Cortez said the cost of residents’ deteriorating health would amount to an “unfair tax” on people in the region.
Jodi Foran of Mancos said people’s bodies already work harder to breathe at the altitudes in Southwest Colorado, and the draft EIS does not address that factor.
Others said the beauty of the Four Corners is being destroyed.
“I left here in ’65 to go east,” said Harry Jones. “I left behind beauty – nice clean streams, fish. I used to eat snow. I used to drink water on top of rocks…. When I came back home it brought tears to my eyes the first time I seen the fog [from the power plants] down in the valleys.”
Many also said the draft EIS did not present enough alternatives. Julia Hesse of Mancos called the three alternatives – the planned plant, a smaller coal-fired plant, or none at all – “laughable.”
“California has cut its [power] use by 20 percent just by using less and we’re not even looking at conservation here,” she said.
Ned Harper of Mancos questioned claims about the economic boon the plant would provide. The draft EIS says about the plant will create about 200 full-time permanent jobs (at least 50 of which will likely not go to Navajos) for plant operations.
Although there will be a Navajo preference in hiring, Harper said, “that is no guarantee that jobs will go to Navajos.”
But even if 150 Navajos are hired long-term, he said, that would only represent 0.085 percent of the onreservation tribal members, who number about 174,000. “The claims that the project is an important step to job creation is absurd,” he said. “I think this is such a thoroughly shoddy document that it should be rejected entirely.”
$50,000 for rings
The sentiment was the same at a hearing July 24 at the Burnham Chapter House on the Navajo reservation. Burnham Chapter is the site for the proposed plant, and approximately 80 citizens — not counting officials and facilitators — crowded into the small room.
Many were Navajo elders – women in traditional flowing blouses, long skirts, and scarves; men in bright shirts and big hats. The majority of speakers used Navajo rather than English; all remarks were translated into the other language.
Sarah White of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment said she worries about the cumulative effects of carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants as well as the mounds of fly ash produced by coal-burning.
“I’ve seen the fly ash at the San Juan and Four Corners power plants,” she said. “They are dumped into a pond and I know it’s seeping into the groundwater as well as the vegeta tion.” She said Burnham locals have received no financial benefits from the vast Navajo Mine on their chapter that supplies coal to the Four Corners plant and would feed Desert Rock.
Betty Dixon spoke about water and health. “What if we deplete our water? Where will we go? Will you be killing us with thirst?”
She also asked why the speakers were limited to three minutes apiece. “If we want to do something that will better the good of the world why are we given three minutes to speak?”
Others also questioned how much economic benefit they would see from the project.
“It’s money to go for the tribal council, so they can buy more rings and Navajo Nation license plates and more discretionary money for the Navajo Nation president and the speaker of the tribal council,” said Barbara Billie to loud applause.
The Navajo tribal council recently authorized spending $50,000 for commemorative rings for its members and $800,000 for the license plates.
But Ivan Bryant argued for the plant, saying it would bring prosperity so that Navajos could join the middle class and drive to the ocean on a whim or buy a boat. Bryant works for PNM, which operates the San Juan Generating Station, but said he was not representing the company.
He also said if the Diné were serious about conservation and global warming, they would give up their “dualies and pickups” and buy hybrids.
“If you want an immediate impact, close down that old dinosaur Four Corners [Power Plant],” he added.
But his view was in the minority.
“There’s no such thing as clean coal,” said Sylvia Fleitz of Mancos.
She said company illustrations of the plant site were misleading because the “after” picture was so pristine.
“No roads, no power lines, no big trucks, no dust or particulates, no brown or yellow clouds, and the same blue sky as before the plant,” Fleitz said.
She told the audience, “What you will get [economically] is a teeny, tiny fraction of what they will get” and called for development of renewable energy on the reservation instead.
“You could be on the cutting edge of the future instead of dragging through the toxic waste of the past,” Fleitz said.
‘Cleanest power plant’
Many speakers also called for an extension of the 60-day public-comment period, which ends Aug. 20, so citizens could digest the lengthy EIS. But Maisano told the Free Press that is not needed. “Many people commented at every meeting,” he said. “When a person is making comments at 10 of the 10 meetings, they certainly have had time to review [the document].
“Guys like Mike Eisenfeld [of the San Juan Citizens Alliance] and the Energy Minerals Law Center have been through this report from the day it hit the Internet,” he added.
The EIS was on the Internet May 15 although it wasn’t in the Federal Register until June 22. “There has been more than 95 days by the time the comment period closes,” Maisano said.
He said opponents are just seeking to delay the project. “Sithe Global is not hurt by delays. The people that are really hurt are the Navajo Nation, the workers ready to go to work when we start building, the Navajo Nation folks who will reap the benefits of the $50 million a year in revenues [from taxes and royalties on the coal used by the plant].”
He said Sithe hopes to start construction in 2008 and may return to the New Mexico legislature to seek an $85 million tax break that was rejected last session.
“That’s $500 to $600 million we would pay the state for purchasing $3 billion of equipment,” he said “You hope when you’re buying $3 billion of equipment the state will see it worthy of giving a small percent back because of the size of the project.”
Maisano said he believes citizens opposing Desert Rock are really concerned about the old plants. “Many of those folks have legacy issues with the other power plants that we have nothing to do with,” he said.
“By us proposing the cleanest power plant that’s ever been built in the U.S. we’ve given them a forum to highlight the concerns they have had for many years, but we don’t get credit for that.”