Groups sue over coal impact on San Juan River

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) February 2011

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the federal government over its alleged failure to protect the San Juan River ecosystem from coal mining and the disposal of coal-combustion waste in northwestern New Mexico.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and the San Juan Citizens Alliance filed a lawsuit last week in federal court in Colorado against the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

The groups claim the agency didn’t consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about threatened and endangered species before renewing a permit last fall for the Navajo Coal Mine.

Taylor McKinnon, the public lands campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity, contends the fish in the San Juan River are going extinct and he blames pollution from coal. He’s also concerned about the quality of the water coursing through the river, which provides drinking water for the Navajo Nation and other parts of the Southwest.

“The fish are a bellwether for the river ecosystem and their well-being or demise is indicative of that of the entire river ecosystem and their well-being is indicative of the quality of the water,” he said. “This lawsuit will force the government to take a hard look at the effects of mining pollution and coal combustion pollution on these fish and this ecosystem. They’ve never done that before in the history of the mine or in the history of the Four Corners Power Plant.”

The Office of Surface Mining is reviewing the lawsuit, but spokesman Peter Mali in Washington, D.C., said he could not comment further.

The lawsuit seeks to have the mine permit overturned as well as force a review to ensure any future permits comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Navajo Mine covers thousands of acres on tribal land in northwestern New Mexico and produces coal for the Four Corners plant, one of the largest coal-fired generating stations in the United States. Operated by Arizona Public Service Co., the plant provides electricity for about 300,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas.

The lawsuit contends activities at Navajo Mine will affect several endangered and threatened species and their habitats, including the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. The environmental groups say the mining operations and disposal of coal combustion wastes is putting mercury, selenium and other toxins into the river.

In September, the Office of Surface Mining authorized the renewal of a five-year permit for the continuation and expansion of surface operations at Navajo Mine. According to the lawsuit, the agency’s failure to consult with federal fish and wildlife managers prior to authorizing the permit “is part of an ongoing pattern and practice” of avoiding compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

The groups said the lawsuit was prompted in part by a draft analysis done by the Fish and Wildlife Service of another proposed coal-fired power plant for the region, the Desert Rock Energy Project. The analysis discussed concerns about mercury and selenium concentrations in the river.

McKinnon said recent and proposed regulatory efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cut down on mercury, greenhouse gases and other emissions from coal-fired power plants will help reduce the amount of pollutants reaching the environment, but agencies such as the Office of Surface Mining need to work with federal wildlife managers to ensure the impacts of coal development are also limited.