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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

Last year, after Desert Rock Energy Company released a 1,500 page draft environmental-impact statement—a study required by the National Environmental Policy Act that the public is allowed to review and comment on—opponents analyzed the effects of the project upon public health, the environment and water supplies.

Aside from the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change, pollutants from the plant would include mercury, ozone, sulfates, nitrates, carbon monoxide and both fine and large particulate matter. Such emissions—on top of those already being released from the stacks of the two existing coal-fired plants—would affect everything from smog and visibility to asthma rates in the region.

Opponents also began studying the possibilities for alternative energy development in the area. Last January, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment—a Navajo organization originally founded to oppose a proposed toxic-waste dump on the reservation in the late ’80s—released a report titled Energy and Economic Alternatives to the Desert Rock Project.

According to the report, wind and solar resources are readily available throughout the reservation. Development of those renewable energy sources would not only be cleaner for the region, but would create more jobs and position the tribe to take advantage of the inevitable shift in energy policy. As states enact renewable energy portfolios that require utilities to buy more and more power from sources such as solar and wind, coal and natural gas will become less attractive alternatives. “We’re looked [at] as an energy sacrifice zone—and we don’t want to be considered that. We want to be considered on the cusp of new technology,” Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group that has been opposed to the project since its proposal, says. “The Navajo Nation and the Four Corners region could be positioned to take full-force involvement in renewable energy alternatives that could produce as much power as Desert Rock, create more jobs, be permitted faster and built faster.”

Eisenfeld has been working to oppose the plant since 2004. With a background in environmental consulting, he knows his way through the maze of federal laws—such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act—that dictate the way large projects, such as coal-fired power plants, come together.

He has combed through the 1,500-page environmental study, looking for errors, inconsistencies and misinformation. But Eisenfeld isn’t just looking at how much mercury the plant might embed within the cells of fish swimming in nearby streams and reservoirs or how an increase in particulate matter will affect asthma rates in the Four Corners: “There’s also the perspective of, ‘Is this something we’re going to look back on in 50 years and think, ‘Gosh, what were we doing?’”

In fact, as carbon emissions continue to rise, the most important step nations can take, according to James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is to cut coal from the world’s energy portfolio immediately. No new plants should be built, he says, and existing coal-fired power plants must be phased out of operation.

But it still remains to be seen how that might actually be done.

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