Once upon a time in the West

It’s a classic Western tale of regret and redemption. Set against the hazy backdrop of Shiprock and the La Plata Mountains, Sithe Global Power has weaved quite the local fantasy in recent years.

Using its own script, the company opens the first scene on a desperate Four Corners future. An international corporation (underwritten by an even larger corporate backer) is actually riding the white horse in this picture. The figure claims to be selflessly coming to the aid of the Navajo people and offers the impoverished natives a “state-of-the-art” path to enormous wealth and a way to nobly meet the West’s growing appetite for energy. According to this piece of fiction, new industry – in the form of the Desert Rock Power Plant – is the only salvation for a savage land (Tony Hillerman would be proud).

“Delays for Desert Rock only hurt the Navajo people,” is a line that punctuates nearly every page of this script.

In Scene II, the camera pans across the hardscrabble of the Dine’ Nation to a realm where a new coal-fired power plant will somehow improve the air we breathe in Southwest Colorado. In this fairytale, soot-fired power does nothing to harm endangered fish or further taint the region’s bodies of water with mercury. Viewed from these unusual angles, the pearly smokestacks seem to add no pollutants to the nation’s newest air quality nonattainment area – New Mexico’s San Juan County.

Sithe Global also has carefully crafted a new breed of bandit who attempts to thwart the corporation’s noble civilizing mission. Business owners, concerned parents and conservationists from La Plata County are cast as these new outlaws. The screenwriters set them atop high-altitude perches, where they selfishly enjoy resort town living and pay no mind to the realities of the Land of Enchantment.

“Nobody in Durango really cares about the Navajo Nation,” the script states at a particularly climactic moment. “Out of sight ... out of mind.”

The spin goes on from there. The directors tell us that Desert Rock will be able to mine its material on-site and cut down on transportation impacts (never mind the millions of tons of coal combustion waste that will be backfilled into the aquifer). The plant will subsist exclusively on ground water, they continue (never mind that the Navajo’s proposed Gallup pipeline and the rapidly evolving Animas-La Plata project have both been linked with Desert Rock).

But unfortunately for Sithe Global, the critical consensus is unanimous.

The picture is a real stinker, and people have been leaving the theater in droves since the production began. Among them are the supposed beneficiaries, the Navajo people, many of whom have tired of the Four Corners’ toxic legacy.

But sadly, one crucial audience member – the Environmental Protection Agency – has remained, watching the plot’s ups and downs with glazed eyes. “The Desert Rock power plant will be one of the cleanest pulverized coal-burning power plants in the country,” an EPA administrator proudly proclaims from his aisle seat.

For some reason, the bureaucrat is so eager to see the credits roll that he has fast-forwarded the process and released a permit before adequately addressing public concerns. Somehow our EPA (let’s go ahead and lower-case environmental and protection) has seen fit to approve a fourth major source of pollution for an already polluted Four Corners.

The EPA’s “cleanest” loses some weight when you start reading the subtitles: Desert Rock would add as much carbon into the local air as any of our existing three polluting power plants, all the while sending power to Phoenix and Las Vegas at the expense of what is already one of the dirtiest airsheds in the nation.

That’s right folks, that clean San Juan Mountains air we all prize is actually dirtier than Metro New York’s (no wonder the directors opted for a Western over an urban thriller). And if we throw another power plant and a few thousand more oil and gas compressors into the mix, the Four Corners will soon surpass the Detroit metro area and finally share some bragging rights with Los Angeles.

Fortunately there is still an honest lawman riding the region. And as the corporate bigwigs are clinking their glasses in Sithe headquarters in Houston, he’s strapped on a sidearm, fired off an appeal and is ready to fight to the bitter end.

“From a legal standpoint, Desert Rock is far from a done deal,” New Mexico Attorney General Gary King recently added to the dialogue.

And so those of us not sitting in the Houston board room could be in for some good news after all. Thanks to big help from the boys in Santa Fe, Sithe Global’s script may be in for a few unexpected twists and turns.

– Will Sands

 

 

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