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Coal-Powered Plant Sparks Controversy


Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley can’t wait for the Desert Rock coal-fired energy plant to be approved. That’s why he’s planning to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to rule on the project’s long-awaited air permit. The agency began assessing the application four years ago.

Usually the process takes about a year. This is longer, the EPA spokesperson Francisco Arcaute said, "due to the complexity of the Desert Rock facility and the high level of public interest." One factor may be that, if approved, the plant will be within a 15-mile radius of two of the country’s largest coal plants.

Local citizens’ groups are fighting Desert Rock and the environmental problems they say it could bring. Many Navajos say they are worried that the plant will harm the local environment, add to global warming and increase already high rates of respiratory illnesses and other health problems linked to the burning of coal. Desert Rock promoters say, however, that the plant will have stricter emissions regulations than any other coal plant.

The Navajo government commissioned the project to bring revenue and create jobs. The Shirley administration says Desert Rock will generate 1,000 temporary construction jobs, 300 full-time operation jobs and $50 million a year for the Navajo Nation. The proposed plant will generate 1,500 megawatts of energy — though buyers have yet to be determined.

But Navajo citizens are not convinced this is enough to outweigh the damages the plant could cause to the local environment and to public health. The grass-roots group Dine Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, or Dine CARE, has released a 168-page report discussing the perceived dangers. In "Energy and Economic Alternatives to the Desert Rock Energy Project," Dine CARE also examines the feasibility of large-scale renewable energy projects. The report is part of a strong local effort to fight Desert Rock.

In July 2007, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held public hearings on the project’s environmental impact statement. Navajo citizens submitted 54,000 comments against building the plant. In addition, the EPA received 1,000 letters during its public comment period. This large number of comments may be one reason the agency has taken so long to rule. "It is typical for the majority of comments on a proposed permit to be negative," said Arcaute.

Sithe Global insists that the plant will be the cleanest the country has yet seen. "The air permit," said the Sithe representative, Frank Maisano, "is one of the strictest air permits the EPA will ever issue. Because some local people had concerns about additional regional haze — because of other power plants in the region — we have offered to write into an additional agreement with the Navajo Nation stricter limits and offsets for emissions."

Maisano says the plant’s supercritical, or high heat, boiler will increase efficiency — significantly reducing emissions. The technology will capture 98 percent of particulate matter, reduce sulfur and NOx emissions by 95 percent, reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent, Maisano says, and reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent compared to older plants. As a result, the Sithe Global spokesman says, Desert Rock won’t present the health risks other plants do. "The regional haze pollution that causes health issues will be virtually nonexistent," said Maisano. By haze pollution, he means particulate matter, mercury and other aerosols.

But a leading climatologist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says the plant will most certainly cause damages to public health, as well as to the local and global environment. "Despite the grievous problems that pollutants such as mercury and particulates cause for individuals," said Hansen, "the most damaging pollutant for humans and other species, by far, is carbon dioxide. [Desert Rock is] not capturing that pollutant at all — by 20 percent reduction, they mean that the efficiency has been improved, so more energy is obtained per unit fuel. But all of the CO2 in the coal is being released to the air."

Hansen says Sithe Global’s claims are "terribly misleading." "Desert Rock is not going to ‘reduce’ regional emissions," he said. "[T]his is double-speak again–it is going to increase regional emissions, just not as much as the other plants. It is a case of piling on a region that is already suffering from emissions."

Mark Chandler, a climatologist who is also at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, points out that Desert Rock’s attempts to limit health risks for the Navajo community will ultimately make the situation worse for global warming. "The classic problem in cleaning up coal plants," said Chandler, "is that coal has a lot of bad things that we don’t want in our backyard [like] particulates and mercury…[Eliminating those] is great in terms of cleaning up some of the most obnoxious issues. But it’s harmful for the climate change issue. Aerosols in the atmosphere — a lot of which come from coal burning — have slowed global warming because aerosols actually reflect some of the sunlight coming to the earth and tend to cool the atmosphere." So, Chandler says, Desert Rock’s effort to curb global warming by reducing CO2 emissions will be counteracted by its reduction of other emissions.

As for potential health problems, says Chandler, not just the local community should be concerned. In fact, he said, people living close to a coal plant may not even be affected if they live upwind. But those living thousands of miles away could feel the effects — if they live downwind. "To give a sense," said Chandler, "of how non-local it is, a lot of pollution in the U.S. is coming from China."

And, said Dine CARE treasurer Lori Goodman, "It’s not just what’s going up in the air, it’s what they’re dumping. There’s all the coal combustion waste. It’s not even regulated by EPA."

Contaminated water from coal combustion wastes has already been a problem for people [living] near the Four Corners and San Juan plants, says Dine CARE spokesman Dialan Long. "Some of the people that I’ve spoke to," said Long, "have said that they’ve lost cattle, so a lot of them have stopped taking their livestock to Chaco Wash [the tributary of San Juan river]…It’s really easy to point to coal combustion waste because it’s the only thing that’s there."

Stephen Austin, a senior hydrologist with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, hasn’t heard about livestock dying, but he is aware of concerns about contaminated water. "There have been past complaints," he said, "by local people about cattle, and some have been investigated." Austin says his agency is looking into possible connections between coal waste disposal and water quality. "Some of the water used to slurry [coal] ash may have leeched into the groundwater of the Chaco Wash," he said.

According to Long of Dine CARE, some Navajos say that Desert Rock will lead to the problems of asthma, respiratory diseases, and cancer associated with other plants. "It is erroneous to claim that Desert Rock will not perpetuate these," he said. "We know better."

Dine CARE says that dust from coal mining, greenhouse gas emissions and coal combustion wastes are all causes for concern. Exposure to pollutants can also exacerbate existing health conditions. High health care costs are a big issue on the Navajo Nation, where Indian Health Service clinics are severely underfunded.

The EPA says it is taking all these concerns into account as it moves toward a decision on Desert Rock. "The EPA," said spokesperson Arcaute, "received a large number of comments that focused on the stringency of the emissions limits for certain air pollutants, the adequacy of the air quality modeling, alternative sources of energy, and whether global warming should be considered in the permitting process. A number of comments also focused on mercury emissions and concerns related to environmental justice…[W]e are carefully considering those comments before making a final decision."

The Navajo Nation government says it wants a decision as quickly as possible. "It is taking longer than we think it should," said Hardeen, spokesperson from the president’s office. The longer it takes for Desert Rock to get its air permit, he says, the longer the Navajo Nation has to wait for the economic benefits the project promises.

If Desert Rock goes ahead, Shirley says it could generate yearly tax revenue equal to 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s annual spending budget. That would make a big difference to the reservation’s struggling economy. Where that money might go, however, is still far from decided.

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