Saying No to Coal

Conservation groups sue feds over 25-year extension for Four Corners Power Plant

Arguing that federal agencies ignored the effects of coal-fired power on the environment and public health, conservation groups have filed a notice of intent to sue the agencies that approved the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine Energy Project. The plant and mine are among the largest sources of carbon emissions in the nation.

The plan, approved in July, allows the coal burning power plant and coal strip mine to continue operations until 2041 and to develop new coal reserves. The would-be plaintiffs, which include Western Environmental Law Center, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Amigos Bravos, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, charge that the approval prolongs the ongoing coal contamination and continues to send toxins into nearby communities and the San Juan River Basin, affecting the ecosystem and endangered species there.

"Prolonging coal not only condemns our health and the water, air, and land around us, it undermines our community's economic future because we are not investing and transitioning to clean energy," Colleen Cooley with Diné CARE, said in a press release.

The conservation groups contend that the impact study for the Four Corners Power Plant cited by the Office of Surface Mining, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior and others that approved the plan didn't adequately consider clean energy alternatives or the affects of another 25 years of carbon pollution on public health, endangered species, water quality and Navajo culture.

The plant, which is operated by Arizona Public Service Company, is located on the Navajo Nation, 15 miles southwest of Farmington. Most of the 1,478 megawatts of power generated there goes to Arizona communities; just 200 megawatts goes to the Public Service Company of New Mexico, according to numbers from PNM.

The notice of intent to sue outlines a case based on violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. The National Environmental Policy Act will also likely be cited in the actual lawsuit, to be filed in 60 days. The 2015 Biological Opinion for the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine Energy Project "allows for immediate increase in species mortality and the destructive of critical habitat in exchange for speculative, unplanned conservation benefits that are uncertain to occur even decades into the future," the letter of intent to sue reads. It suggests the agencies read the notice as "invitation to engage in productive discussions," and expect a lawsuit otherwise.

The San Juan River Basin could provide habitat for recovering populations of endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, both of which have seen numbers and viable habitat dwindle and are now found in just two geographic areas. A formal recovery implementation program is already in place for the Colorado pikeminnow and the criteria for taking the species off the endangered species list calls for a self-sustaining population in the San Juan River.

"Decades of deadly coal pollution in the San Juan Basin have poisoned people, the San Juan River and its endangered fish," Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. "Our laws require the government to recover endangered species, but more coal pollution will push San Juan River fish toward extinction."

Fish in the river near the power plant could be exposed to water contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals, the notice of intent letter argues, as well as pinned on intake pipe screens or trapped in the man-made Morgan Lake, where they would be exposed to recreational fishing and inhabitable water quality and prevented from accessing spawning habitat. The Biological Opinion suggests that it could use stocking to mitigate potential affects to fish populations, but the letter calls this method "illogical," stating, "Putting more fish in the river may, temporarily, provide the illusion of a stable fish population, but it does nothing to alter the underlying habitat conditions that threaten the fishes' survival and recovery."

With forecasts that predict streamflow will decrease in the San Juan River by 8 percent to 45 percent by midcentury, it's also going to be increasingly challenging to meet flow requirements, and that lower stream levels may exacerbate contaminant issues—and the Biological Opinion acknowledges as much, but fails to factor them into analysis of how that will effect the Colorado pikeminnow, according to the letter of intent to sue.

San Juan County has already taken its share of toxic pollution, the letter adds, pointing toward air quality that fails to meet national standards and the numerous pollutants already found in the San Juan River that have rendered fish from the waterway unsafe for consumption.

According to the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory, the Four Corners Steam Electric Station is the fourth-highest producer of toxins in the state. In 2011, the EPA introduced the first limitations on mercury emissions and other toxic air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants, calling for a 10 percent reduction by 2005 of emissions that can include mercury, arsenic, chromium, sulfur dioxide and acid gases.

The Biological Opinion justifying the choice projects annual emissions from the power plant at 149 pounds a year (though in 2014, the Four Corners Power Plant reported releasing 625 pounds of mercury compounds into the air, down from nearly 1,500 pounds in 2009, according to the EPA). Mercury is the leading cause of water quality impairment in the state, according to Amigos Bravos, and more than 60,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in New Mexico are polluted with mercury.

"It is unacceptable that in over half of the state's lakes and reservoirs, New Mexicans can no longer fish without worrying about poisoning their families," Rachel Conn, interim executive director for Amigos Bravos said in a press release.

"Even the former owner of the Navajo Mine, BHP Billiton, has exited many coal contracts across the globe because coal is no longer economically feasible," Cooley with Diné CARE, said in a press release.

In the face of cheap natural gas prices and the Clean Power Plan the US Environmental Protection Agency released in August, industry analysts see gas ready to step in and take over for coal. Energy-analysis consultants BTU Analytics reported that 3.5 gigawatts of coal power are slated for retirement and 15 gigawatts were retired already this year, and forecast that the market will drive many coal-fired power plants to convert to burn natural gas (as is the plan for two of four units at the San Juan Power Plant recently approved by the PRC). The environmental benefit of that switch, given the ongoing methane leaks from natural gas production facilities and methane's role as a potent and fast-acting accelerator of climate change, are debatable.

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