Desert Rock returns to square one

The Environmental Protection Agency dealt a major blow to the Desert Rock Power Plant this week, asking backers of the controversial, proposed power plant to return to the beginning of the permitting process. Opponents are hailing the decision as a victory for the health and environment of the Four Corners region.

In collaboration with the Diné Power Authority, Sithe Global has proposed Desert Rock on Navajo Reservation land, 30 miles southwest of Farmington. When completed, the $2 billion plant would be among the largest in the nation and generate enough energy for 1.5 million homes. From the outset, Sithe has touted Desert Rock as state of the art, using 80 percent less water than traditional wet-cooled, coal-fired plants and having an efficiency of 41 percent. The Bush Administration EPA agreed with this assessment and granted approval to the plant last summer. In its decision, the agency praised the proposed plant’s emission standard as among the most stringent in the country.

However, the Obama EPA is viewing Desert Rock in a different light. This week, the EPA Administrator’s Office asked that Region 9 of the agency reconsider its approval of the plant. The decision came after numerous groups had petitioned the EPA on the grounds that the permit was inadequate to protect human and environmental health. The official decision cited five separate areas where the air quality permit was insufficient, and opponents welcomed the decision with open arms.

“We’re obviously quite happy with this decision,” said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance. “We have been working very hard for four years to alert our partners and local decision makers about the inadequacies and failures of the Desert Rock permit.”

Eisenfeld and other opponents interpreted the remand as a call for alternatives to coal-fired power. “This is simply another sign that this ill-begotten coal burner is not viable in today’s environment and under the new administration,” he said. “We hope that Sithe Global will finally realize that if they want to continue in the energy business, there are cleaner alternatives out there.”

Lori Goodman, of Diné CARE, noted that the Navajo people would have experienced much more than economic benefit from the plant. Desert Rock would have also left a legacy of increased air pollution and coal combustion waste on the impoverished reservation.

“We are hopeful that the Navajo Tribal Council will finally start to understand that another dirty coal plant is the last thing needed for the long term benefit of our land and our people,” she said. “We are fortunate to live in a place that is rich in clean renewable energy resources. That is where we need to go.”

Desert Rock backers took a much dimmer view of the decision. Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., a steadfast supporter of the plant, cried foul and demanded a meeting with President Barack Obama.

“Because of today’s action, I am asking for a meeting with President Obama sooner rather than later,” Shirley said. “On the campaign trail, President Obama acknowledged the federal government has not always been honest and truthful in its dealings with Native America, and frankly, I am feeling that sentiment today.”

Shirley then added, “This isn’t just about energy. This is about sovereignty. This is about saving self. This is about the Navajo Nation regaining its independence by developing the financial wherewithal to take care of its own problems.”

Jeff Holmstead, an attorney for Desert Rock and former head of the EPA’s Air Program, also alleged impropriety after hearing of the decision. “I don’t think anyone ever imagined that the new team at EPA would seem to have such little regard for due process or basic notions of fairness,” he said. “Everyone understands that a new administration has discretion to change rules and policies prospectively. But I’ve never seen any administration try to change policies and rules retroactively.”

Holmstead added that the Desert Rock air quality permit is the “most stringent of any such permit in the country” and was issued after five years of environmental review. “Now EPA wants the Navajo Nation and its partners to go back and start over again under different rules,” he said.

Pointing to the numerous holes in the permit, Nicholas Persampieri, an attorney for Earthjustice, countered that it is not the “most stringent” of its kind and argued that the EPA failed on several fronts. “EPA Region 9 now agrees with what those opposed to Desert Rock have been saying for years,” he said. “Adequate analysis has never been conducted to support the issuance of a permit in order to protect public health and the environment.”

Legislature passes Bicycle Safety Bill

Colorado cyclists got big help this week as the Colorado Legislature passed the Bicycle Safety Bill. The bill now heads to Gov. Bill Ritter’s desk for a signature and is expected to go into effect Aug. 4.

Most significantly, the bill will require automobiles to give riders 3 feet of clearance when passing and allow motorists the leeway to cross the centerline when doing so. Another “common sense rule” in the bill clarifies that cyclists can ride as far right as is safe or to the far left on one-way roads with more than one lane. Cyclists can also ride side-by-side if they are not impeding the normal and reasonable movement of traffic. Lastly, throwing an object toward a bicyclist would be a class 2 misdemeanor, and driving toward a bicyclist in a dangerous manner would be a careless driving offense.

One of the bill’s sponsor’s, Sen. Greg Brophy, a Republican from Wray and avid road rider, commented, “Given the amount of cyclists hit every year, I am glad to see we are making progress in this area.”

Following a complex legislative process, both the Colorado House and Senate passed the Bicycle Safety Bill on Monday. Following the votes, Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado, called the bill a win for cyclists and motorists. “This bill takes a big step toward improving safety for everyone on Colorado roads,” he said.

Ozone pollution worsens in region

Local lungs are continuing to pass the test, but new evidence points to worsening Four Corners air quality. The American Lung Association released its “State of the Air” report this week, and both La Plata and Montezuma counties saw increases in ozone pollution last year.  

The 10th annual report graded counties on ozone and particulate pollution. Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides – a common power plant pollutant – combine with volatile organic compounds, and ozone is the one pollutant that is hitting the Four Corners harder.

In the report, La Plata County received a seemingly respectable “B” for ozone. However, the reality is that local air quality dropped a full letter grade since the last report. Montezuma County had also been an A-level ozone student, before falling to a “C” in the report. Natalia Swalnick, air quality manager at the American Lung Association, explained that the grades reflect a growing awareness as well as growing pollutants.

“These failing grades for ozone pollution do not just mean that the ozone levels have gotten worse from previous years,” she said. “It does mean that now we recognize that the ozone we have is much more dangerous, and we need to continue our actions to clean up the sources.”

Ozone pollution irritates the lungs when inhaled, and short-term, symptoms include wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks. Long-term exposure to ozone can severely damage the lungs and lead to death.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

July 21, 2022
Wildlife success or deal with the devil?

Land swap approved in Southwest Colorado, but not without detractors

July 21, 2022
Tapping out

The latest strategy to save the San Luis Valley's shrinking aquifer: paying farmers not to farm

July 14, 2022
Hey, good environmental news

Despite SCOTUS ruling, San Juan Generating Station plans to shut down