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Navajo Coal-Fired Plant Called a Cleaner Energy Source, but Critics Disagree

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    A handful of people, mostly Navajo women, have sat vigil on a dusty expanse of reservation land for months, hoping their presence will help to block the construction of a proposed $3 billion power plant that would keep the lights on in a million or more homes in Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev.
    Meanwhile, the bureaucratic process leading to the plant's approval inches forward. The latest step— a public comment period on an environmental impact statement favorable to the Desert Rock Power Plant— begins this week.
    The protesters' message is simple: Navajos have already sacrificed their air, their land and their health for the nation's electricity— two big coal-fired power plants already operate in San Juan County and the deadly legacy of uranium mining lingers.
    We don't want any more, they say. Or in the Navajo language: "Doodá." Plainly, "No."
    "We have a culture where we're supposed to protect Mother Earth and Father Sky," organizer Elouise Brown said. "We already have enough power plants here. We don't want any more. We don't want any more pollution in the area."
    Representatives of the project say they'll be building the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the nation to meet growing energy demands— and that, if Desert Rock isn't built, some other plant will have to go up to meet that demand. And, they say, they're doing it in a place that desperately needs the economic help.
    "The Navajo Nation invited us to be there," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Houston-based Sithe Global Power, which is building the plant. "This is something they want and they are a full partner."
    The project, a huge coal-fired plant that would provide 1,500 megawatts of power, has the blessing of the Navajo Nation. While Navajo communities near the plant site have come out against it, the Navajo Tribal Council approved the project on a near-unanimous vote and Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. has repeatedly said it will be the tribe's biggest economic development achievement.
    Sithe Global and the tribe's Diné Power Authority are cooperating to build the plant and to hook into transmission lines that would send the electricity west. The plant would funnel $55 million a year to the tribe through lease payments, royalties and taxes as well as employing 200 mostly local workers inside the plant. BHP Billiton would expand its Navajo Mine, which sits adjacent to the Desert Rock site, and create another 200 mining jobs to serve Desert Rock.
    It will sit on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation, just west of rich coal beds and just south of two large coal-fired power plants— the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant.
    Lining up against the plant are the Navajo resisters, the environmental group Diné CARE and the newest group, "Doodá Desert Rock" or "No Desert Rock." They have the support of a host of environmental groups, including the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Conservation Voters Alliance and the Sierra Club.
    An environmental impact statement prepared for the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be the focus of 10 public hearings the next two weeks.
    It looked at the extent to which the Desert Rock would add pollution to the Four Corners area, how much water it would use and a factor called "environmental justice," which analyzes which population bears the burdens of the plant and which population reaps its benefits.
    The technology the Desert Rock plant will employ is expected to make it remarkably clean for a coal-fired plant.
   
  • Desert Rock will be permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency to release 3,315 tons of sulfur dioxide a year. In comparison, the Four Corners and San Juan plants each released about 15,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2006.
       
  • Desert Rock will be permitted to release 3,320 tons of nitrogen oxide a year; Four Corners released 44,348 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2006 and San Juan released 27,502 tons.
       
  • Desert Rock's mercury emissions will be about 160 pounds under its permit while the Four Corners and San Juan plants produced about 400 pounds combined in 2006.
       
  • Desert Rock will be permitted to release 11 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, compared to 16.4 million tons in 2006 for the Four Corners plant and 13 million tons for the San Juan plant.
        Sithe Global has pledged to reduce some emissions beyond those requirements, including cutting its mercury emissions in half. It has also pledged to make investments in other plants in the region to reduce their emissions. Reductions at other plants would more than completely offset Desert Rock's emissions and result in fewer overall emissions in the Four Corners area, according to Sithe Global and the environmental impact statement.
        The environmental impact statement concludes that it is the Navajo people who will bear the brunt of any negative effects, including more pollution, haze and disturbed land.
        The report notes that the people living near the plant are low-income and minority and "any deterioration of environmental quality would be disproportionately borne by this population."
        While noting that the plant would release pollutants, the report said that the cumulative pollution levels would be below federal standards.
        "The local population is disproportionately impacted by the cumulative land use and visual effects of these facilities, which generate power for a much larger area," the EIS concluded.
        That sums up the opposition to the plant among some Navajos who live in the area.
        "It's just about greed and money, that's it," Brown said. "We'll be left here with this on our land."
       
    Power plant hearings
       
  • Farmington: Tuesday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Farmington Civic Center.
       
  • Towaoc, Colo.: Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Ute Mountain Casino.
       
  • Durango, Colo.: Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Iron Horse Inn.
       
  • Albuquerque: Thursday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
       
  • Santa Fe: Friday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Runnels Building.
       
  • Shiprock: July 23, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Shiprock Chapter House.
       
  • Nenahnezad: July 23, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Nenahnezad Chapter House.
       
  • Burnham: July 24, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Burnham Chapter House.
       
  • Sanostee: July 24, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Veterans Memorial Center.
       
  • Window Rock, Ariz.: July 23, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Navajo Nation Museum.
        The Bureau of Indian Affairs will also take written comments through Aug. 20. Mail them to Harrilene Yazzie, NEPA Coordinator, BIA Navajo Regional Office, Desert Rock Energy Project EIS, P.O. Box 1060, Gallup, NM 87305. Or go to www.desertrockenergy.com and click on "comment on the project."
        Public hearings about the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Desert Rock power plant in San Juan County will be held through the end of July.