The Four Corners Power Plant, as seen from Morgan Lake near Fruitland, N.M., could send 250 million tons of carbon emissions into the air over the 25-year life of its recently renewed operating permit./File photo


Where there’s smoke ...

Conservation groups fight feds over power plant permit, mine expansion
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by Tracy Chamberlin

Just 60 miles south of Durango, near Fruitland, N.M., sits a coal-fired power plant that’s been in operation for more than 50 years. If nothing changes, it will
remain in operation for another quarter-century.

A coalition of conservation groups, however, want to see some changes.

After the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement recently approved a request for the power plant’s permit to be renewed through 2041 and a 5,600-acre expansion of the coal mine, which supplies its fuel, the coalition announced its intention to file a lawsuit.

It’s not so much a desire to simply snuff the coal fires, but a belief that there’s another way to power the Southwest.

“The sooner the Four Corners region transitions off of coal, the better off we’ll be,” explained Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate programs manager for the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance. The Alliance is one of five conservation groups who, on Dec. 21, filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the OSM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the surrounding communities, environment and endangered wildlife.

It’s the first step to taking the federal agencies to task.

“I think people know our organizations have taken this on as a priority, and we’re going to challenge this decision,” he said.

Since the original mine and power plant leases were granted in the late 1950s and 60s, several companies held the title of owner or operator.

At this point, the Navajo Transitional Energy Co., which was created a couple years 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, called the Pinabete Permit Area.

As for the power plant, the primary owner – Arizona Public Service Co. – is also the operator. Coming in a distant second on the lengthy list of shareholders is the Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

Several years ago, these entities asked the federal government to grant a 25-year permit renewal for the power plant and the mine, as well as allow for development of the new coal mining area, which they say is needed to keep the coal supply coming.

Those requests were granted this past July in an official decision handed down by the lead agency on the project, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance, along with its partners, protested the decision and the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, which accompanied it. 

According to Eisenfeld, the EIS has three main problems: it quickly dismisses renewables as an option for supplying power to the area; the 25-year term of the permit is too long; and the federal officials in charge of the assessment marginalized the overall economic picture for the region.

“They seem to minimize the impacts while at the same time we, as a society, are starting to identify that burning coal is very problematic,” he said.

The Citizens Alliance, along with representatives from Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, Amigos Bravos, Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, plan to file several suits for a failure to comply with both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, specifically citing the potential impacts to the area’s rivers, lakes and air quality from both carbon emissions and mercury.

“We think we’ve got justified means for challenging this,” Eisenfeld said.

Early on in the environmental assessment process, Eisenfeld suggested a 10-year permit, which he called a legitimate alternative. He thinks it would be enough time to transition from coal to renewables, which is ultimately the goal.

OSM officials have said the length of the permit was not up to them. Their job was to simply evaluate the request for 25 years, which they did in the thousands of pages of documentation associated with the project.

With 250 million tons of carbon emissions expected over the life of the 25-year permit, Eisenfeld said it’s time to start moving toward renewable sources of energy.

“If we want to take action as a nation, we need to move beyond burning massive amounts of coal,” he added.

Many coal-fired supporters cite money as one of the best reasons to keep the coal fires burning, but Eisenfeld doesn’t buy the argument that coal is cheap.

The Four Corners relies heavily on tourism, he said. Air polluted by coal and water with a high mercury content is not going to entice any visitors. “If we continue to burn coal, we’re going to continue to have problems,” he added.

He also doesn’t want to leave his kids with the legacy of coal-fired energy. At the very least, he wants them to know people were thoughtful about the possibilities.

The concept of change, though, might be the biggest obstacle.

“This coal complex is so entrenched here,” Eisenfeld explained. “(It’s) thought to be a foundation of the area.”

But, that’s not necessarily the case. He said there are lots of ways to be creative with alternative forms of energy, like building solar farms on reclaimed coal mines, and residents should be considering their options.

“We get the best bang for our buck by addressing the biggest pollution sources,” he said.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance and its partners haven’t heard from the OSM or other agencies named in its announcement. The next step is to file the lawsuit at the end of the 60-day period, where the debate can head to court.

When it comes to whether or not they can actually make a difference, Eisenfeld said, “I think our odds are pretty good.”