Endangered at Desert Rock
Proposed power plant could threatend endangered fish

SideStory: A drafty document: Desert Rock study draws weighty criticism


The Four Corners Power Plant sits temporarily idle west of Farmington. Coal-fired power plant emissions, particularly mercury and selenium, have a negative effect on fisheries. As a result, the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant is currently facing environmental review for potential damage to the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker./File photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

Opposition to the Desert Rock Power Plant could have two unusual new allies – the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. New coal-fired power generation in the region may imperil the two native fish, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun an inquiry into impacts Desert Rock might have on the endangered species.

Sithe Global would like to build the $2 billion Desert Rock Energy Project on Navajo Reservation land, 30 miles southwest of Farmington. When completed, the new plant would be among the largest in the nation and generate enough energy for 1.5 million homes. The plant has already won preliminary approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, which touts it as state-of-the-art, using 80 percent less water than traditional wet-cooled, coal-fired plants and having an efficiency of 41 percent.

Efficiency aside, Desert Rock would continue to emit some toxins into the Four Corners’ airshed, and those toxins could have a dramatic impact on efforts to get the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker off the Endangered Species List.

A combined effort between the states of Colorado and New Mexico and the region’s Indian tribes is working to recover the endangered fish in the San Juan River. As a result, biologists are seeing signs of recovery in both species. Overall habitat for native fish in the river has improved, and water has been allowed to flow to agricultural, municipal and hydroelectric projects. Last fall, the groups committed to extend the recovery effort through 2023 with a mind to balancing habitat and water development on the river.

However, water use is not the only threat to the recovery effort. Mercury, selenium and other pollutants emitted by the region’s two existing power plants directly harm the fish. With a mind to future power generation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The USFWS agency is now undergoing an environmental analysis to determine if Desert Rock would push the native species closer to extinction.

“We’ve had some good luck with our recovery efforts on the San Juan River,” said Elizabeth Slown, spokeswoman for the USFWS Southwest Region. “Basically, what we have to do now is see if we think a new power plant is going to jeopardize the future for those fish. We’re now working on the environmental process.”

As it worked to assess the situation, the USFWS submitted 27 separate questions and points of clarification to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They range from questions about how much water would be diverted from the river to how many pounds of pollutants would be added to the watershed each year. The agency also noted that no study of risks to the two fish has been made in spite of the BIA’s determination that there would be “no adverse modification” to the species. In response, the USFWS asked that risk assessment be conducted.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service believes there could be adverse impacts to the pikeminnow and razorback sucker due to mercury and selenium from the existing power plants and exacerbated by Desert Rock,” said Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens’ Alliance’s New Mexico coordinator.

Eisenfeld noted that even though Desert Rock is a more advanced and efficient plant, it would still emit up to 9,000 pounds of selenium and 151 pounds of mercury per year, according to the group’s modeling.

“There’s a cumulative effect of years and years of pollution in the region, and selenium and mercury have known adverse effects on fish,” he said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is saying that with that amount of additional selenium, the survival of the fish could be in danger.”

Sithe Global does not see the situation in the same light. Frank Maisano, spokesman for Desert Rock, countered that the new plant would not threaten any endangered species in the region.

“Certainly, we’re willing to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said.

“We’re the ones who started the ball rolling on this. But we don’t think Desert Rock will harm any endangered species.”

Maisano estimated that actual mercury emissions from Desert Rock would be less than 50 pounds a year, well below the 151 pounds revealed in San Juan Citizens Alliance’s modeling. “We’re talking about so little mercury we’re not even going to scratch the surface,” he said. “We’re reducing those emissions up to 90 percent. That’s negligible compared to what the other plants are already putting out there.”

For his part, Eisenfeld does not dispute that Desert Rock will be cleaner than the existing Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station. “We liken it to having two old pickups in the garage and then going out and buying a hybrid,” he said. “The hybrid is going to be a lot cleaner, but it is still emitting pollution.”

The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker assessment is expected to take several months. •

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