Power plant plan heats up
EPA approval of Desert Rock outrages opposition

SideStory: The search for Desert Rock - Opponents allege deficient public process

The Four Corners Power Plant, west of Farmington, could soon be joined by the Desert Rock plant, which recently received EPA approval. The controversial and massive plant will be located on the Navajo reservation, about 20 miles south of Kirtland and will provide e=power to 1.5 million homes./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

The future is looking cloudy for the Four Corners area. A massive new power plant proposed just south of Shiprock recently received the OK from the Environmental Protection Agency. In its approval, the agency touted that the plant will be among the cleanest in the world. Opponents took a different view, however, blasting any new power generation in an already-polluted region.

Tagged the Desert Rock Project, the $2 billion facility would become the third coal-fired power plant operating in the San Juan Basin. It would be built on the Navajo Nation roughly 20 miles south of Kirtland, and it is estimated that the plant would generate enough energy for 1.5 million homes. In its recent approval, the EPA boasted that Desert Rock will also be groundbreaking in terms of cleanliness and pollution controls.

“The EPA’s proposed permit will require the best pollution controls available for a pulverized coal-burning power plant and will limit air pollution emissions from the facility to levels that protect public health and the environment,” said Deborah Jordan, the EPA’s air programs director for the Pacific Southwest region Jordan added the EPA analyzed the best air pollution controls available to limit the release of harmful pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulates. As a result, the emission limits in the EPA’s proposed permit will be among the most stringent in the country.

However, opponents of Desert Rock and clean air advocates see the recent EPA approval in a different light. Regardless of the technology, the new power plant will add pollution to the Four Corners area. The plant would join longtime polluters, the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, both west of Farmington. The existing plants currently burn coal to generate electricity for nearly 500,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas, but have also been listed as among the dirtiest point sources of pollution in the nation. In addition, a fourth coal-fired plant, named the Mustang Project, is also seeking approval to begin construction between Farmington and Grants, N.M.

“I think the EPA should be commended for holding the proposed plant to the highest standard,” said Roger Clark, air and energy coordinator for watchdog group the Grand Canyon Trust. “But I still have serious concerns that the cumulative impact of power plants in this region has not been analyzed. There are times in the San Juan Basin when there are unhealthy conditions that people are already breathing.”

While new power plants are the standouts in terms of new pollution, the Four Corners region is also facing impacts from a less obvious source. In the continuing local energy boom, thousands of new gas wells have been approved in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Each of those wells will eventually host a gas-fired compressor and a dirty exhaust pipe.

“Beyond the power plants, a major issue is the thousands of compressors in the region on oil and gas wells,” Clark said. “Those are also emitters of pollutants. At some point, those sources of pollution will add to an already bad situation.”

The Desert Rock permit has also drawn strong opposition on the Navajo Nation. Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment) and the Doodá Desert Rock Committee are vigorously opposing the recent approval. The groups are not mincing words about the plant, calling it “blatant environmental racism” to place a third power plant on the impoverished Navajo Nation.

“Anyway you look at it, the Desert Rock plant will add pollution to what’s already there,” said Lori Goodman, an organizer with Diné CARE. “Plus, there’s not a demonstrated need for the plant. There are no buyers for the electricity.”

Goodman then added, “The power plant is something that’s being rammed down our throats and all because of the current administration. It’s become like a runaway train.”

Two messages are coming out the Navajo Nation with respect to the Desert Rock Project, however. On the one hand, there is the strong opposition of Diné CARE and the Doodá Desert Rock Committee. On the other, there is endorsement and support from the Navajo Nation government.

Goodman commented, “The government definitely wants it, but the people do not. Unfortunately, the government is in a position where it doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds it. But we’re still putting up a vigorous fight. There’s no need for this plant. It’s ridiculous.”

Like the Grand Canyon Trust, Diné CARE also cited the poor pollution track records of the Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station and added that the health of Four Corners residents has already been compromised. Further, the Desert Rock Project would add to health-care costs on a reservation where the Indian Health Service is only 70 percent funded.

“There are never any funds for adequate health care,” said Diné CARE Coordinator, Anna Frazier. “But when it comes to building more power plants and digging another mine on our lands, there is never a shortage of funds.”

Meanwhile, the fight against Desert Rock is far from over. The EPA’s permit must endure several months of public scrutiny before becoming final. A 90-day comment period kicks off this week. In addition, transmission lines and groundwater usage have not been approved for the giant plant.

“There are still some opportunities here,” Clark concluded. “There are other fundamental issues that have to fall into place before the plant is built. Foremost, who is going to buy the power and how is it going to get there?” •



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