EPA approves air permit for Navajo power plant

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 8-08

Both environmentalists who have been fighting a proposed coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Nation and supporters of the project expected it: an air permit for the plant.

On July 31, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed off on the permit for the controversial Desert Rock power plant the agency says will set a new level of performance for coal-fired plants in the United States.

The EPA filed a consent degree in June, agreeing to act on the permit that sets limits for emissions covered under the federal Clean Air Act by the end of July as part of the settlement of a lawsuit that the developers of the $3 billion project filed against the agency.

While environmentalists proclaimed it “a sad day” and prepared to appeal the EPA’s decision, Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. hailed the decision as much-needed to improve conditions on the vast reservation across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

He said the benefits of Desert Rock, which include $50 million in annual revenues to the tribe and thousands of jobs, outweigh the environmental concerns.

The Dine Power Authority and Houston-based Sithe Global Power are partnering to build the 1,500-megawatt plant near Farmington in northwestern New Mexico. The air permit was considered a major hurdle to overcome before construction on the plant could begin. An environmental impact statement also needs to be approved.

Navajos regard the earth as their mother and the sky as their father, and Shirley said tribal officials are “doing the best we can to do our part to take care of the environment.

“At the same time, we know that the deities want us to take care of ourselves, to stand on our own two feet, as individuals, as families, as a community, as a nation,” he said in an interview. “And that’s certainly what Desert Rock is about.”

Gov. Bill Richardson and New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry planned an immediate appeal of EPA’s decision, claiming the federal agency violated the Clean Air Act in issuing the permit.


“EPA is bending to the will of corporate, financial and misguided political interests that will pollute New Mexico’s skies,” Richardson said in a news release. “EPA’s decision ignores its obligations to protect the health of residents and the environment in New Mexico and the region. We will not allow this ill-advised decision to stand.”

Dailan Long of Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment called the EPA’s decision irresponsible and inappropriate.

“It is a devastating blow to tribal members who continually suffer from the large coal complex encroaching upon our land,” he said in a statement.

The Navajo Nation, which stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, is rich with natural gas, uranium and low-sulfur coal. Tribal officials say the reservation’s coal can be mined for the next 200 years.

President Bush on July 31 said that coal should be part of the solution to reduce dependance on foreign oil and that he’ll use his next six months in office to push new energy plans that include electricity from coal.

Reliable sources of electricity must be part of a strong economy, and “there is no more reliable source of electricity than coal,” he said in a speech to the West Virginia Coal Association.

Without global warming emission controls, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said it is reckless to approve Desert Rock.

“This one massive plant will negate the emissions reductions being implemented by the northeastern states in the first mandatory regional program to cut global warming pollution,” said Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “The administration’s shameful decision rewards polluters, flouts the Clean Air Act and fails the American people.”

EPA officials contend their process was thorough and involved comprehensive technical analyses that will ensure that pollution levels safeguard public health and the environment.

A review of the more than 1,000 mostly negative comments on the permit led to additional monitoring requirements for organic compounds, lead, sulfuric acid, hydrogen fluoride and visible emissions, said Colleen McKaughan, a Southwest region deputy air division director for the EPA. The EPA also lowered limits for nitrogen oxide, a precursor for ozone, she said.

The developers also have agreed to further reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in the area by generating or purchasing sulfur dioxide credits and retiring them.

McKaughan said those who commented on the air permit and the consent decree can appeal the EPA’s decision to the agency’s Environmental Appeals Board, which has the final say on all administrative decisions. The EPA received nearly 100 submissions on the consent decree, all of which opposed either issuing the permit or approving the consent decree.

“EPA determined that the comments we got did not disclose any new facts or considerations that indicate that the consent decree or the permit is inconsistent with the Clean Air Act or other laws,” McKaughan said.