Desert Rock draft draws fire
Coalition fires off 100 pages of criticism over proposed plant

A woman herds her sheep near Shiprock and the Four Corners Power Plant earlier this year. The area, home to two of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the country, could soon be home to a third. The massive, 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant has been proposed for the Navajo Reservation, but local, state and national environmental groups are decrying the plan, which they say will exacerbate already-poor air quality and pollution in the Four Corners./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Missy Votel

The public comment period on the Desert Rock power plant’s draft air quality permit ended last week, but the debate over the massive coal-fired facility is just heating up. On Nov. 13, a coalition of 10 local, state and national groups responded to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Draft Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit with nearly100 pages of critical comments. Among the main concerns was the draft’s failure to address mercury and greenhouse gas emissions as well as the use of flawed modeling that neglected to take into account the already compromised airshed of the Four Corners.

The groups called on the EPA to start over with a new permitting process, which they allege was rushed through at the bidding of Desert Rock’s parent company, Sithe Global.

“These expert comments reiterate what we have been telling the EPA now for months,” said Mike Eisenfeld, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, one of the 10 groups commenting. “Desert Rock will endanger the health of residents across the Four Corners region, will threaten the air quality in Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde national parks and other recreation areas, and it will spew massive quantities of global-warming pollutants into the atmosphere.”

The document also was signed by the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, Forest Guardians and Environmental Defense, among others.

According to the groups, the draft does not address emission limits for “invisible pollutants,” such as mercury and carbon dioxide. Mercury, a neurotoxin, has been found in unsafe levels in area waterways, including Navajo and Vallecito reservoirs and the San Juan River; and carbon dioxide has been linked to global warming. The groups cite recent studies sponsored by the EPA demonstrating that up to 70 percent of local deposition of mercury can be linked to local power plants and industrial sources. According to the EPA’s draft permit, Desert Rock, which would be located 30 miles southwest of Farmington on the Navajo Nation, would emit 13.7 million tons of carbon dioxide and 114 pounds of mercury a year.

“Desert Rock portrays itself as ‘clean,’ but they neglect to admit they would emit as much CO2 as the San Juan Generating Station, they’re sort of sweeping this CO2 thing under the rug,” said Eisenfeld.

The San Juan Generating Station, 15 miles northwest of Farmington, and its neighbor, the Four Corners Power Plant, are among the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the country. With the addition of the 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock plant, pollution levels in the Four Corners could be pushed to dangerous levels, said Roger Clark, of the Grand Canyon Trust.

“The Four Corners area is already saturated with emissions from two of the largest coal-fired plants in the country and from natural gas drilling,” he said. “This could have a potentially devastating effect on people’s health.”

The groups also call into question the EPA’s failure to consider the impacts of ozone pollution from Desert Rock. The plant will emit large quantities of precursor pollutants to ozone, the report alleges, exacerbating ozone levels that are already teetering dangerously close to allowable federal levels. Excess ozone can lead to asthma and other upper respiratory problems, something Anna Frazier, with Diné Care, said is occurring with increased frequency on the Navajo Reservation.

“The health of local community members is deteriorating in the area of heart disease, asthma and respiratory problems,” she said, citing Indian Health Services. “More than 30 years of pollution from the two existing power plants has contributed highly to health problems of the Navajo people living in the area. A comprehensive health study needs to be conducted before the Desert Rock energy Facility becomes a reality.”

Representatives of Sithe did not return requests for comment. However, the company is touting the Desert Rock facility as state of the art, using 80 percent less water than wet-cooled coal-fired plants and having an efficiency of 41 percent. The project will use low-sulfur, Navajo coal and is expected to have the lowest emissions permitted to date in the United States, according to the Sithe website. The plant will control 90 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, 98 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and will have the “best technology to control” over 80 percent of the mercury emissions. Sithe also touts Desert Rock’s economic impact. The $2 billion plant is expected to generate $50 million annually in taxes for the Navajo Nation. The plant will average 1,000 employees during the four-year construction period and 200 full-time personnel during normal operations.

But these benefits are of little consolation to Clark, with the Grand Canyon Trust, who said they will be short-lived compared to the environmental damage from the plant.

“I’m very concerned with the impacts this will have on our national parks, wilderness areas and the ecosystem. We cannot afford to put up one coal-fired plant after another and risk not having a habitable planet for our grandchildren,” he said. “That’s the environmental issue that trumps all other environmental issues.”

Rather than investing money on what he sees as an outdated mode of energy production, more efforts should go into developing renewable energy sources, he concluded.

“The energy companies are great at proposing today what they did yesterday,” he said. “But we’re at the point where every new dollar spent on last century’s technology is a dollar not spent on this century’s options for a sustainable future.” •

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