September 2007

County says maybe, Utes say no to Desert Rock

NEW MEXICO'S FOUR CORNERS POWER PLANT RANKS NO. 1 IN THE NATION IN NITROGEN-OXIDE EMISSIONSThe Montezuma County commissioners refused last month to either oppose or support the controversial Desert Rock power plant, opting instead to give it a complicated maybe.

But also in August, the proposed 1,500-megawatt, coal-burning plant got a thumbs-down from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

Meanwhile, the public-comment period on the draft environmental impact statement for the plant was extended at the last minute from Aug. 20 to Sept. 20, partly as the result of urging by Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. John Salazar, both Democrats.

On Aug. 27, the Montezuma County commissioners passed a complex resolution commenting on the environmental impact statement for Desert Rock.

They had been asked by the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental group, as well as concerned local citizens to pass a resolution opposing the plant, which is to be built by Sithe Global on Navajo Nation lands southwest of Farmington, N.M.

The Durango and Cortez city councils, the Mancos Town Board and the La Plata County Commission all have passed resolutions opposing the project.

The resolutions are of course symbolic, since none of the Colorado entities have any jurisdiction over the decision. However, they are intended to indicate public sentiment on the project and concern about its effects on public health and regional air quality.

The commissioners opted not to vote against Desert Rock. Instead, they passed a two-page resolution expressing recognition for the need for more electrical power and concern about the pollution from existing plants.

The resolution comments that “electricity has become essential to humanity” and notes that the U.S. population is growing, requiring more power..

However, the resolution also states that “potential risks to human health caused by new energy production must be minimized to the greatest extent possible” and that “the natural scenic qualities of the American West and Montezuma County [are] also very important to the local economy and the overall quality of life of its citizens.”

It notes that two existing regional coal-fired power plants in northern New Mexico, the Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station, have been ranked by the EPA as among the top 50 plants nationwide for emissions of carbon dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxides.

These “unacceptably high emissions… need to be significantly reduced through modernization and retrofits by constructing and employing state-of-the-art technology,” the commissioners said.

They then resolved that Desert Rock should be required to utilize “the best technology and methods known to modern engineering and science” and that the two existing plants should be retrofitted “to the same exacting standards as Desert Rock within a period of three years after completion of the DR facility.”

There is no mechanism for tying approval of Desert Rock to clean-up of the old plants, as they are owned by different entities.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribal council weighed into the debate with a “no” vote on the issue Aug. 22.

Citing a need “to balance economic development, energy needs, environmental protection, and protection of public health,” Ute Mountain Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said in a statement, “This proposed Desert Rock power plant fails to achieve the appropriate balance.”

The Utes had as recently as 2004 mulled the idea of starting their own coal-fired power plant with water claimed from the San Juan River.

The EPA has already issued a draft air-quality permit for Desert Rock and took public comment nearly a year ago, but has never issued the final air-quality permit. Now, the BIA, the entity with jurisdiction over the whole project, has issued a draft EIS. Public comments will be taken by the BIA until Sept. 19.

Opponents of the plant had sought a 60-day extension of the comment period, which originally was to end Aug. 20, because the EIS is 1,600 pages long and it was difficult for Navajos on the reservation to get hard copies of it, much less to have it translated into Navajo for those not speaking English.

However, until Aug. 17, the BIA said it would not lengthen the comment period. Then it abruptly announced that there would be a extension, albeit only for 30 days.

Colorado’s Salazar brothers had fought hard for the extension.

In an amusing tangent to the Desert Rock controversy, a Navajo filmmaker, Shonie De La Rosa of Kayenta, caused a flap with a short film called “D.C. Navajo,” available on YouTube.com.

The film humorously depicts a corrupt, greedy official in the tribe’s Washington Office who takes kickbacks and talks endlessly about money, but brushes off a consultant on the reservation trying to get paid for work he’s done.

De La Rosa said he and an actor in the film were told by a tribal humanresources officer that “some employees of the township were making a mockery of the Navajo Nation,” the Gallup Independent reported. The pair was allegedly threatened with termination.