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What is the future of San Juan County’s coal power plant?

Possible closure sparks economic worries
An aerial photo of the San Juan Generating Station, where Public Service Co. of New Mexico announced it will shut down operations in 2022.

FARMINGTON – In a packed room, with people lining the walls, the orange and green reflector stripes across the work shirts of mine workers caught the lights. For almost four hours Monday evening, community members across the Four Corners stood up to talk about the future of the San Juan Generating Station, and, by extension, the future of their economic stability, environment, family and way of life.

Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, chairwoman of New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission, called the hearing at San Juan College to collect public testimony as the commission considers the Public Service Co. of New Mexico’s application to close the plant in 2022. The PRC is tasked with determining if the state’s new energy transition law, passed last spring, would apply to PNM’s initial closure proposal, which was filed before passage of the law.

While the public hearing was held in relation to the Energy Transition Act, many community members took the opportunity to urge the commission to accept PNM’s abandonment of the mine and plant closure, while allowing an outside company, Enchant Energy Corp., to take control, theoretically extending the life of the plant and maintaining much-needed jobs in the community.

“This is our chance to be innovators, to be leaders,” said Joseph Leach, an employee of the mine. “I see all my brothers and sisters here. We have our work shirts on. We’re not here to beat our chests about burning coal. We’re here to save our jobs, save our livelihoods.”

New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission held a community hearing Monday at San Juan College in Farmington about the fate of the Public Service Co. of New Mexico’s application to close operations at the San Juan Generating Station under the Energy Transition Act.

After the utility company announced it was closing its operations, Enchant Energy Corp. signed an agreement with the city of Farmington last year to take over plant management and retrofit the facility with carbon-capture technology. The company also received a $5.8 million grant through the U.S. Department of Energy to study the feasibility of turning the generating station into a carbon-capture facility.

Many of the community members at Monday’s hearing spoke in favor of Enchant’s proposal, with the hope it could save jobs in the region. The plant and mine closure could see the region lose about 450 jobs and see decreased revenue to the county, San Juan Community College and the Central Consolidated School District, according to a report by O’Donnell Economics and Strategy.

But while supporters say carbon capture is a viable option to keep the plant operational and maintain economic stability in the region, critics worry the deal is providing false hope to the community. And on Monday, not everyone spoke in favor of keeping the power station running.

Kim Smith was among a group of Navajo Nation activists who spoke of the harm and damage done to the environment and the approximately 20,000 Navajo Nation members who live downstream and downwind.

“We should know what we need to do, and that is to transition away from coal power because it’s detrimental to not only our health but the health of the air, the health of the water and the health of the soil,” Smith said during her testimony.

Smith and other activists also referenced a health assessment of people living near the power plant, which found widespread health and environmental impacts to their community.

Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager with San Juan Citizens Alliance, was also at Monday’s hearing. San Juan Citizens Alliance was not allowed to provide public comment during the hearing because the group is considered an intervener in the abandonment cases. But Eisenfeld told The Durango Herald with the plant’s closure there is going to be a significant void and it is important to determine what comes next.

“Everyone is advocating carbon capture but that’s very speculative,” he said.

Eisenfeld said it is important to have a transition plan in place “that looks at a variety of ways to diversify our economy and replace coal jobs that are leaving” after PNM’s abandonment, and to then focus on renewable energy sources.

At stake for the community, if the commission accepts the utility company’s application for abandonment under the recent energy transition law, is $40 million in funding for workforce retraining and economic assistance to Farmington and San Juan County in the event of the plant’s closure. The commission will also decide if the owners of the plant are allowed to refinance and recover part of their investments through low-interest bonds to be paid off by utility customers.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso speaks Monday at the community hearing at San Juan College in Farmington held by New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission about the fate of the San Juan Generating Station.

In addition to the packed room of community members, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso, San Juan County commissioners, city officials, Diné activists, school district officials and a state senator were in attendance.

Toward the end of the hearing, when the room was more empty seats than packed auditorium, Travis Hutchinson, an electrician with Westmoreland Mining, spoke about how proud he was of working in the mine. He admitted the situation “(was) tough, everywhere you look at it, it’s hard to find a solution.” But he added that he saw it as an opportunity to solve the issue in a way that would work for the community.

“Everyone you’ve heard from here tonight will be affected. ... We’re all married into this,” he said.

lweber@durangoherald.com



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