One simple rule: Don't use water to generate electricity in the desert.

The Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) wants to replace the power of the San Juan Generating Station closing units mainly with coal, nuclear, and gas.

No one needs to tell anyone here that we must conserve water. If the Public Regulation Committee (PRC) accepts PNM's plan, annual water use will go from 5.4 to 5.17 billion gallons. This does little to conserve and nothing to address pollution.

Little discussed is PNM's ground- and surface water pollution. Before PNM, arroyo-systems that converge at PNM were dry. After, discharge quickly filled the groundwater system and surface water began to flow, carrying contaminants eventually to the San Juan River.

Coal contains countless contaminants, including mercury, arsenic, and lead. In nature, these exist in small concentrations. But mining coal exposes the toxins and burning coal concentrates them. PNM is closing units to address air pollution, but improvements in air quality come at the expense of soil, ground water, and surface water contamination. When PNM installed scrubbers, they were cleaned with water then discharged to the arroyo. Evaporation ponds were installed, but leaked: First to ground-, then surface water, and finally to the river.

PNM tried to plug the leaks, but with billions of gallons of water imported every year, a leak-proof system is impossible.

PNM claims natural salts are mistaken for pollution. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico Environment Department concluded that the salts would not have moved if PNM did not introduce water into the system. The discharge water also picks up contaminants as it flows through mine spoils and coal ash en route to the San Juan River.

The biggest pollution problem won't be realized in our lifetimes. It's the mine itself. Today it's a dry dumping ground for contaminants, de-watered to remove coal. But the plant won't always exist. When activity stops, the mine will fill with groundwater. Instead of reaching coal held between impermeable layers sandstone and shale, it will saturate rubble and coal spoils with salts from crushed rocks and coal ash.

Who will clean up this toxic soup? The same people who always pay for PNM's pollution — the public.

So here's another rule: If nature disperses and isolates dangerous contaminants in small concentrations, leave them alone.

Will the PRC ignore PNM's externalized costs of water use and contamination or will we pay now for sustainable energy to conserve water and avoid saddling future generations with untold environmental cleanup costs?

 

Paul Davis is a hydrologist and owner of EnviroLogic Inc. in Durango, Colo. who has studied ground- and surface water associated with the SJGS on and off for over 20 years.