Navajo enterprise sues over proposed power plant

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 3-08

A Navajo Nation enterprise has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the agency’s lack of action on an air permit application for a proposed coal-fired power plant.

The Navajo Nation’s Dine Power Authority and Houston-based Sithe Global Power have partnered to build the $3 billion, 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock plant.

The DPA and Sithe applied for an air permit in early 2004. Under federal law, the EPA has a year to make a determination and issue a decision.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Houston by DPA and Desert Rock Energy Company, LLC, seeks to force the EPA to make a ruling. Construction on the plant can’t start until an air permit is granted.

Steven Begay, the general manager of DPA, said the air permit “gives the green light for a lot of other things.”

“Time is money,” he said. “Sithe is spending money, and we’re spending money. The longer we wait, the more money we spend ... and we don’t want to do that. We want to move forward.”

The EPA has received more than 1,000 comments on the air permit, each of which the agency has to respond to, said Margot Perez-Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the EPA in San Francisco.

“Typically it doesn’t take this long, but there is really no normal time frame,” she said. “It really depends on the complexity of the project, and in this case, it is a complex process.”

Perez-Sullivan couldn’t say when the EPA might act on the permit application and declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.

The Navajo Nation notified the EPA in January that it intended to sue over the permit, and when the EPA took no action after 60 days, the tribe decided to move forward with the lawsuit. The EPA and agency administrator Stephen Johnson are named as defendants.

Shirley, who traveled to Washington, D.C., during March and met with Johnson to urge his agency to issue the permit, has made Desert Rock a priority in his administration. The tribe is expecting millions of dollars in lease payments, taxes and coal royalties once the project is complete.

“There is a ripple effect. The longer we wait the more it’s costing not just the Navajo Nation but the investors who are helping us with this project,” said George Hardeen, a spokesman for Shirley. “Investors can’t wait forever.

Sithe has invested about $20 million in the project so far, and the lawsuit claims the tribe is losing $5 million in tax revenue for every month the permit is delayed.

“This is a huge issue for the Navajo Nation. It’s economic development, it’s jobs, it’s the future opportunities for the nation,” said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Sithe. “We’re happy to do our part to move it along in support of the nation.”

The air permit would set limits for emissions covered under the federal Clean Air Act, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulates and lead emissions. Both federal officials and Desert Rock developers have said the draft permit contains some of the strictest controls ever set for a coal-fired power plant in the United States.

But some Navajos and environmentalists argue that Desert Rock, which would be built on tribal land near the Navajo community of Burnham, would harm the environment and residents’ health. There are two other coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region.

The New Mexico Environment Department and others have criticized the draft permit for not including enforceable conditions to address adverse visibility and for not analyzing mercury or carbon dioxide emissions.

Others have complained that a better understanding of existing air quality conditions in the Four Corners region is needed before acceptable standards can be set for Desert Rock.