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Down and Dirty

Opponents of the Desert Rock Power Plant say it's time to get over coal

December 17, 2008, 12:00 am

For more than five years, the Desert Rock Energy Company—a subsidiary of Sithe Global Power and the Navajo Nation’s Diné Power Authority—has been laying the plans for Desert Rock.

“There is some huge need for power in the region,” Sithe Global’s spokesman Frank Maisano says. Arizona and Nevada remain desperate for new sources of power, he says, and some of the power might even be used right there on the reservation, if the tribe decides to develop a local project.

As opposition to the plant has grown—both locally and nationally—boosters and proponents within the tribe have been quick to label the plant as a “clean coal” plant. According to the tribe, Desert Rock will have the “lowest emissions of any power plant in the United States” and, as an air-cooled plant, will use 80 percent less water than typical plants.

“Here, we have a design which is believed to be a very clean-burning plant that uses far less water, and people are criticizing it,” Hardeen says, “whereas the problem of global warming and air emissions results from the old-style power plants, which were designed and built in the 1960s and ’70s.” In fact, if older plants were replaced by those such as Desert Rock, he says, carbon emissions would be reduced: “It would be a benefit to the environment.”

Not everyone feels that way.

The region already has three coal-fired power plants, including two in the Four Corners, which are considered among the dirtiest plants in the country.

“They are so dirty that the area around Farmington now exceeds allowable levels of ozone, and that’s in a community with a relatively small population, while most of the places that exceed [allowable limits for ozone] are highly dense areas with many cars, for example, Los Angeles,” John Fogarty, a family practice physician who has worked for Indian Health Service since 1997 and worked for seven years in Crownpoint, on the eastern edge of the Navajo reservation, says.

 The two plants in the area have already contaminated water bodies in the state, Fogarty says, pointing out that people are advised against eating the fish that swim in 26 bodies of water in northern New Mexico because their flesh contains very high levels of mercury, a neurotoxin. Coal plants spread through the air a variety of other toxins, as well, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter—and all of those have a significant effect on public health. Those toxins are associated with asthma, pulmonary disease, increasing rates of heart attack and stroke; elevated levels of mercury also are associated with birth defects and developmental delays.

“In short, adding yet another coal-fired power plant in communities that have already been very heavily affected by coal-fired power plants is unacceptable,” Fogarty says. “And I think it’s maybe even more unacceptable because that power is going to be exported out of state to Phoenix or Las Vegas so that the communities here in New Mexico that are going to bear the brunt of those toxins, they’re not even going to be benefiting from that cheap power.”

For people living in the area, he says, Desert Rock is an issue of justice—environmental justice and economic justice.

Beyond that, however, Desert Rock is an issue of global importance. “From the perspective of climate change, if we as a society are going to come together and protect future generations from the dangerous effects of climate change, we have to begin reducing our emissions right now,” Fogarty, who also co-directs the Santa Fe-based organization New Energy Economy, says. “And more importantly, we can’t continue to build huge infrastructure that is going to continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere for another 50, 75 years.”

Once a plant like Desert Rock is built, it will continue operating for decades. And that means it will continue to emit coal for the foreseeable future.

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