Way past due: A new review for an old complex

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on Wednesday began the official process of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine, which supplies it.

This is a long overdue review, and one that is critical to our region.

Approximately 15 miles southwest of Farmington, these 50-year-old facilities have had a tremendous impact to the Four Corners. The power plant is one of the dirtiest in the nation, even after numerous upgrades through the decades. The smoke plume from the plant was visible from space during the early years of space flight and today is a major source for the nearly ever-present haze extending up and down the San Juan River watershed.

The power plant is the largest source of air pollution in New Mexico. It is the top coal-plant emitter of nitrogen oxides in the United States, with 44,649 tons emitted in 2006 (data from the Environmental Protection Agency). Every year, its air pollution contributes to 44 premature deaths, 800 asthma attacks, 42 asthma-related emergency-room visits, and other health effects, at an estimated cost of more than $341 million (www.catf.us/coal/problems/power_plants/existing/map.php?state=New_Mexico).

The Navajo Mine has a long history of protest by the people displaced by the mine and affected by the blasting and fugitive dust. For decades, the millions of tons of solid waste produced by the power plant were dumped in unlined mine pits with the potential for leaching of toxics into the San Juan River.

For all too long, these facilities have avoided any comprehensive review of their effects to the region. In 2005, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Diné CARE challenged a 13-page Environmental Assessment for a 3,200-acre expansion of the mine. When the federal court found that assessment lacking and denied the permit for expansion, the mine and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation responded with another Environmental Assessment, this time for 830 acres. This permit now is under challenge in court, as well.

At the heart of these challenges to the mine permit expansions is the failure of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation to consider effects beyond the immediate mine area – such as the burning of coal, an obvious outcome of the mining. Impacts such as disposal of the waste; the water use (more than 24,000 acre-feet of San Juan River water each year for the power plant alone); or the human health effects of the air pollution; water quality in the San Juan River; and the native fish that are barely surviving because of high levels of mercury and selenium.

If the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and other agencies live up to the promise of a full and thorough review, it will provide an opportunity for our region to explore not only the legacy of 50 years of coal mining and burning, but also what we want our next 50 years to include.

Do we need or want to continue on the current path, or do we shift to being a source of renewable, clean energy and clean industry? We have a wonderfully creative region, set in a uniquely beautiful landscape. We now have a new opportunity to help craft an economy to match.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.