Since the original lease was signed in 1960, several companies have held title as owner or operator of the Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, N.M. At this point, the primary owner - Arizona Public Service Co. - is also the operator./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Make a statement

Feds seeks input on Four Corners Power Plant, Navajo Coal Mine

by Tracy Chamberlin

With debates on fracking bans and pipeline construction filling the airwaves across America, the Four Corners region is witness to a somewhat more archaic battle between energy consumption and production.

This one’s about coal.

The combustible material keeps the Four Corners Power Plant running, the Navajo Mine digging, the electricity flowing and the debate raging in the Southwest.

The latest chapter in this energy book is a draft Environmental Impact Statement, or DEIS, released March 28.

The DEIS examines how four specific requests could impact things like air quality, climate change, water, vegetation and wildlife as well as cultural resources, socio-economics and public health.

The requests in question:

- Permit renewal through 2041 for the Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, N.M.;

- Right-of-way permissions needed to operate the transmission lines connected to the plant;

- Permit renewal for the Navajo Coal Mine;

- Development of a new coal mining area.

Prepared by federal workers, with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement acting as the lead agency, and private sector individuals with Cardno, an environmental services company headquartered in Australia, the DEIS offers five detailed responses to those requests.

The first response is to do nothing, called the No Action Alternative. This would mean the existing permit ends in 2016, no more electricity comes down the power lines and the clean-up begins in earnest.

The second response is called the Proposed Action, which means it’s the one recommended out of the five possible choices. This one calls for the approval of the power plant permit, the right-of-way permissions, the coal mine permit and the development of the new mine area.

Two of the alternatives, B and C, would allow for the power plant permit, the right-of-way permissions and the permit for the existing coal mine. However, they would not approve the permit for the new mine. Instead, those alternatives require the applicants to look at other mines to supply the plant with coal.

The final option, Alternative D, approves the permits and leases to operate the power plant and both mines. The one change is how the applicants are required to deal with disposal of the ash waste.

Lots of individuals and organizations including environmental groups like the San Juan Citizens Alliance, sat down with the 1,560-page DEIS after its release and reviewed those five responses.

Right off the bat, one main issue stuck out to the Alliance’s New Mexico Coordinator Mike Eisenfeld – the length of the requested permit. The applicants asked to renew the permits and operate the plant and the mine for 25 years, keeping the coal fires burning until 2041.

With 250 million tons of carbon emissions expected over that time period, Eisenfeld said it’s time to start moving4 toward renewable sources of energy.


What: Open House Public Meetings on the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine draft Environmental Impact Statement

When and Where:
- Thurs., May 1, from 5-8 p.m. at the Montezuma-Cortez High School

- Sat., May 3, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Durango Rec Center, Peaks Room

- Mon., May 5, 5-8 p.m., Farmington Civic Center, Exhibition Hall 2

For info:
or 303-293-5035

He suggested looking at a 10-year permit, which he called a legitimate alternative. Eisenfeld thinks that  would be enough time to transition from coal to renewables like solar, especially in the Four Corners area.

Chris Holmes, spokesman for the OSM, said the length of the permit is not up to them. It’s it up to the applicants.

Since the original mine lease was granted in the late 1950s and the original power plant lease was signed in 1960, several companies have held the title as owner or operator.

At this point in the process of buying, selling and transferring ownership, the Navajo Transitional Energy Co., created just over a year ago by the Navajo Nation Council, owns the lease for the existing 33,600-acre coal mine and is the name behind the newly proposed 5,600-acre mine referred to as the Pinabete Permit Area.

As for the Four Corners Power Plant, several entities have a claim to ownership. The primary owner – Arizona Public Service Co. – is also the operator. Coming in a distant second is the Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

These are the main players behind the applications for the permit and lease renewals.

Holmes said 25 years is how long these groups think the mine can supply coal to the plant. He explained the job of his agency is to examine the potential environmental impacts of the requests, no matter how long they might be.  

When considering those requests, Holmes said, the agency is required to consider three main elements: protecting the public from the adverse effects of coal mining; the cleanup from past mining; and the nation’s energy needs. The proper balance is what they’re looking for, he added.

For Eisenfeld, old plants like the Four Corners Power Plant should be retired in a timely manner. After all, the plant is already older than 50.

At a time when the federal government is acknowledging the effects of climate change, he said, they’re looking the other way when it comes to the Four Corners. “It doesn’t make sense at all,” he added.

The length of the permit isn’t the only problem Eisenfeld found in the DEIS, which he called very dense and fairly flawed.

He said it doesn’t take into consideration the potential impacts of the power plant on areas that would be adversely affected by poor air and water quality, like national parks and wilderness areas. It also does not account for the complexity of the financial situation. Eisenfeld explained the DEIS over-simplifies the web of federal, private and tribal entities who could profit from the project as well as those responsible for the eventual cleanup.

Along with other environmental groups, Eisenfeld and the Citizens Alliance plan to write extensive comments on the DEIS and have requested an extension of the May 27 deadline.

A decision on that request hasn’t been made yet, Holmes said, adding that the 60-day comment period is considered sufficient for the almost 1,600-page impact statement, which is a fairly typical size for such documents. He said the agency takes extension requests seriously and tends to lean toward allowing for more time. 

After all, what the agency is looking for is feedback from the public. Over the next week, it will be hosting several open houses across the region, including one Sat., May 3, from 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. at the Durango Recreation Center. Everyone is welcome to attend, comment, ask questions or offer up evidence.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement along with a Record of Decision is expected in the first quarter of next year.

If the Citizens Alliance doesn’t agree with that final decision, it has several options including additional meetings with officials from the Department of Interior, the parent agency for the OSM, or potential litigation.

“We believe the Navajo Mine is a facility in decline,” Eisenfeld said. He thinks that the coal fires don’t have to keep burning for the next quarter-century.