Public comment is being sought in a series of meetings this month about the document that will set rules for operations of the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine Energy Project west of Farmington.
“It’s an opportunity to engage the public and have them ask us questions,” said Alex Birchfield, ecologist and part of the Indian Programs branch of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. “We encourage feedback, something that we haven’t considered or we ought to consider.”
In Durango, an open house to gather feedback and answer questions on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the power plant and the mine was held Saturday at the Durango Community Recreation Center.
The next meeting will be in Farmington from 5 to 8 p.m. today at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St.
Subjects considered are air quality, climate change, cultural resources, wildlife and special species, land use, socioeconomics, Native American trust, noise, hazardous and solid waste, recreation, health and others.
Emissions of pollutants, greenhouse gases and target metals from the Four Corners facility can be measured in tons. Annually, from 2005 to 2011, more than 15.44 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents were emitted from the plant. Other emissions include nearly 12,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 41,000 tons of nitrogen dioxide. More than 5 tons of selenium, known to cause pulmonary complications, was pumped out of the smokestack along with 806 pounds of mercury. Selenium and mercury adversely effect endangered fish in the San Juan River.
According to reports from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, elevated levels of mercury are found in fish in the Navajo, Vallecito, McPhee and Narraguinnep reservoirs. In 2006, Colorado Parks & Wildlife issued consumption advisories for Vallecito, citing Mercury at dangerous levels.
The Navajo Mine, 33,600 acres on tribal land, was leased to BHP Navajo Coal Company, in 1963, producing nearly 6 million tons of coal annually. In 2013, the federal mining agency approved a transfer of the permit from BHP to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a Navajo Nation entity. The Navajo firm acquired 100 percent of the equity and assets of the mine from BHP, according to the EIS.
Four Corners Power Plant, which is fueled by coal from the mine, currently generates about 1,540 megawatts of power that provides power to hundreds of thousands of homes in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Eighty percent of the 800 employees at the power plant are Native Americans.
The EIS was conducted as part of a lease amendment to extend operations through 2041 by Arizona Public Service, who owns a majority of the power plant, along with Salt River Project, Tucson Electric Power, El Paso Electric and Public Service Co. of New Mexico.
The document’s thousand-plus pages were made public March 28, 2014, and public comment will be taken through May 27. According to the report, before federal agencies can proceed, they must consider the impacts on human, natural and cultural environments.
Daniel Tormey, project manager for Environ, the firm hired to conduct the EIS, said the study focused primarily on three major components of the power plant: the underground coal mine itself and a 5,600 acre expansion; the coal-fired power plant; and the transmission lines that carry the power.
“If the most important thing to you is climate change, then any coal-fired power plant that you shut down is a victory,” Tormey said. Decommissioning the power plant is the last, and least, favored option for owners.
A remaining issue is that of the ash residue created after the coal is burned, he said.
“There is some pretty major environmental change,” Tormey said about aggressive underground blasting and expansion in the mine.
He said, otherwise, the power plant would continue to run as is with two major exceptions.
“The Environmental Protection Agency decided in order for the plant to keep operating, it has to meet the best standards of all power plants in the country,” Tormey said. For that to happen, the plant would shut down operation of three older burning units, 1, 2 and 3, which occurred in 2013, leaving two newer units 4 and 5 in operation.
In addition to shutting down the outdated units, the power plant must retrofit the remaining units with nitrogen-oxide controls as part of the EPA’s compliance with BART – “best available retrofit technology.” The augmented pollution control is expected to reduce haze and improve visibility in the region by July 2018.
According to the EIS, future emission reductions – predicted for 2019 – of such air pollutants as arsenic and lead could be as much as 96 percent and greenhouse gases 26 percent. Carbon-monoxide reduction could be 25 percent and nitrogen oxides 87 percent. Mercury could be cut back as much as 81 percent.
Tormey said the EPA is still in the decision process on how to treat and dispose of the coal ash, which currently sits on about 1,000 acres near the power plant. More land would be required to store more ash, but the EPA must first determine if the coal ash should be treated as solid waste or toxic waste. The decision will determine how the coal ash is stored.
Nine agencies contributed or cooperated with the draft EIS, but some people said issues were overlooked or poorly assessed.
Colleen Cooley, of Diné CARE: Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, said the EIS is far too overwhelming, written in technical language that may create a communications barrier. She wants more time to teach others about what is being proposed.
“The EIS is 1,500 pages, and they’re only giving us 60 days,” she said. “It’s not enough time. It needs to be in more general terms. What is this? What are these impacts?”
Mountain Middle School teacher Kelly Polites said she’s terrified.
“I live in Bayfield, and I drive to Durango everyday, and I see the brown smoke,” she said. “It’s really disturbing to me.”