Three new power plants pitched for Four Corners
New coal-fired plants could worsen already bad air quality

Electricity flows through a transformer near downtown Durango. Three new coal-fired power plants have been proposed for the region to serve projected
power needs in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Mercury and ozone are words that have filled headlines lately, and they are substances that have been polluting air throughout the Four Corners region for some time. Now there are revelations that one of the biggest sources of local air pollution, area power plants, could grow. Three new coal-fired power plants have been proposed for the Four Corners region, and one of these would be among the largest ever built in the United States.

The San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, both west of Farmington, burn coal to generate electricity for nearly 500,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas. “On any given day in the West, power is swinging back and forth depending on what power needs are,” said Amy Miller, spokeswoman for Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). “That snapshot is constantly changing.”

PNM is the principal owner of the San Juan Generating Station and a part-owner of the Four Corners Power Plant. The two plants operate on sub-bituminous coal which is mined from the generous deposits located in the vicinity of the plants. Excessive emissions from burning this coal have created a regional problem, according to Dan Randolph, an organizer with San Juan Citizens’ Alliance

“The two power plants that we currently have are two of the most polluting in the United States,” he said.

Randolph noted that levels of the pollutant ozone have encroached on federal standards in Farmington. He also commented that the second-highest airborne mercury reading in the country was taken at Mesa Verde National Park. The two existing plants have been identified as major culprits in a pollution situation that’s affecting the entire region.

Court decision could aid local air quality
Judge rules against San Juan Generating System
In spite of the push to expand regional power generation, a recent court decision could be good news for air quality in the Four Corners. In late February, Federal District Court Judge Bruce Black ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club and against the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). PNM had tried to prevent its own monitoring data from being used to show emission violations at the San Juan Generating Station, but Black rejected the argument.

The court’s ruling has opened the way for a second trial where the number of air pollution violations at the plant will be counted. The monitor evidence that PNM unsuccessfully tried to keep out of court shows that the plant exceeded its opacity limit more than 60,000 times, according to the Grand Canyon Trust. Opacity is the density of the pollution coming from the plant’s smokestacks.

PNM had argued that although its state-of-the-art continuous monitors were specifically designed to measure the density of pollution emitted by plant, violations could only be determined by a person “eyeballing” the plume.

Mary Wiper of the Sierra Club said that the excesses represent not just a failure by the plant but a failure by the current presidential administration.

“The Bush administration has failed to enforce the Clean Air Act and hold polluters accountable for putting New Mexicans’ health at risk,” she said.
Rick Moore, associate director of the Grand Canyon Trust, said that the court decision should open the door to getting the plant cleaned up.

“This decision clears the way for determining the number of violations at the power plant and then moving on to establish what PNM must do to stop violating the Clean Air Act and what penalties it should pay for having unlawfully fouled the air of the Four Corners region,” he said. “We are looking forward to the next steps in getting this plant cleaned up.”

“It’s all the same airshed,” Randolph said. “In Durango our prevailing wind is from the southwest, and our air quality is increasingly becoming an urban problem, and we are not an urban area.”

What’s even more distressing, according to Randolph, is that the Four Corners region is on the verge of witnessing a power plant boom. Three new power plants have been proposed in the vicinity of Shiprock and Farmington, and one of them will be a massive addition to the landscape.

STEAG Power, a subsidiary of a German-based power company, has announced plans to build a major new plant near Shiprock by the year 2008. In collaboration with the DinE9 Power Authority, STEAG would build the coal-fired plant on Navajo Reservation land for an estimated cost of $1.4 billion. When completed, the new plant would be among the largest in the nation and generate enough energy for 1.5 million homes. Numerous companies have entered into negotiations with STEAG to buy power from the new facility. STEAG also has signed an agreement with the developers of a planned power transmission line that would begin in Shiprock and end in Las Vegas.

“They have also been in talking with our people, and we’re certainly interested in any new power resources in the region,” said Miller of PNM.

A coal-fired plant plant one-fifth this size, named the Mustang project, is also seeking approval to begin construction between Farmington and Grants, N.M. Originally, the plant was expected to be operational by next year, but Randolph said there have been some delays, and that Mustang has categorically refused to consider alternative and more environmentally friendly technologies.

Rounding out the picture is a recent proposal for a third plant in the vicinity4

of the Four Corners Power Plant, southwest of Farmington. On March 22, an application was submitted for a coal-fired power plant one-third the size of the one STEAG has proposed. Called the Cottonwood Energy Center, the plant also would be located on the Navajo Reservation and operate on coal from the Navajo Mine. BHP Billiton, the company proposing the plant, would like to have it operational by 2009.

Randolph commented that this major power plant push is the result of several factors. “My understanding is that major new power plant construction did not occur much at all during the ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “The companies are now projecting future growth primarily in the Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California markets.”

The reason that the Four Corners region has been targeted for these new facilities is because of geology, Randolph added. The facilities would all be “mine mouth” plants that would mine generous coal deposits on site or close by, thereby cutting transportation expenses.

“The San Juan Basin gets to wrestle with the legacy of millions of years because of our geology,” Randolph said.

The Four Corners Power Plant near
Farmington./Photo courtesy the Grand
Canyon Trust.

And the San Juan Basin gets to wrestle with the impacts of supplying energy for other places in the nation. “We are providing more than our share of energy for the nation,” Randolph said. “Before new air pollution sources are permitted, we shouldn’t have to bear any more of the burden. The current sources should be cleaned up significantly.”

Miller said that PNM is looking at options for making the San Juan Generating Station a cleaner facility. However, she was less than optimistic. “It is much harder with today’s technology to remove mercury from sub-bituminous coal,” she said. “We’re hoping some technology develops so we can get further removal.”

Randolph added that if new plants are constructed, they should be state of the art and as clean-burning as possible. And he countered that technology is available for cleaner burning coal-fired power plants. In particular, he mentioned that San Juan Citizens’ Alliance and other groups will be pushing for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology. During this process, coal is converted into a friendlier “synthesis gas,” thus greatly reducing mercury and ozone emissions.

“Our geology sets us up as a sacrifice area,” he said. “What are we going to get so that Las Vegas can use our geology? My answer is that they should be as clean as they can be.”

Currently, activism is largely behind the scenes on the new power plants, according to Randolph.

“At this point, it’s slow and it’s quiet because we want to work with the affected Navajo community before we go out in a big way,” he said.

However, Randolph concluded by saying that a coalition of diverse groups will be going out in a big way in coming months and years.

“The next one to five years will be critical for the Four Corners community to decide the future of quality of air it breathes and what it gets in exchange for exporting power,” he said.






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