WATERFLOW — The sickness came in increments, a slow onslaught of weight loss, stomach pain and extreme diarrhea.

By July 1982, Waterflow resident R.G. Hunt Jr. didn't know what else to do, so he went to the hospital.

"I said, 'I just feel like I'm dying,'" Hunt said.

The doctors ran some tests and gave him a few ounces of cherry juice to drink.

"It felt like I'd been shot in the stomach by a 12 gauge shotgun," Hunt said.

Shortly after, he was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning, and by late 1982 he felt he knew what the culprit was -- drinking water contaminated by heavy metals leeching from coal ash at San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine.

The power plant and mine are located just up the road from his shop, Original Sweetmeat, Inc., and his residence in Waterflow.

Although the power plant operator, Public Service Company of New Mexico, and the mine owner, BHP Billiton, have taken measures to secure the coal ash in safe areas, Hunt believes that toxic chemicals and heavy metals are still leaching into the groundwater, contaminating the nearby Shumway Arroyo and making their way down to the San Juan River.

In December 2009, Hunt testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

"For generations, we drank from a fresh water well on our property, without any adverse effects," he said.

PNM built San Juan Generating Station in 1972 and began burying coal ash in streambeds in 1975, contaminating nearby water sources with arsenic, selenium, potassium, chromium, lead, sulfate and other compounds and metals, Hunt said.

Hunt was approached by a PNM employee on Dec. 23, 1982, with an offer.

"PNM approached us offering us $2,500 to sign a release as a 'good neighbor' gesture on their part," he said. "We asked them, instead, to cover the cost of hooking into the public water system for our family. They refused."

R.G. Hunt Jr. talks about pollution from coal ash at his shop on Aug. 16 in Waterflow. Hunts says that he was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning in 1982
R.G. Hunt Jr. talks about pollution from coal ash at his shop on Aug. 16 in Waterflow. Hunts says that he was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning in 1982 and believes that it was caused by drinking water contaminated by heavy metals leeching from coal ash at San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine. (Augusta Liddic The Daily Times)

And so did he, deciding instead to buy drinking water until he could afford connection fees into the public water system. Once he did, Hunt says the symptoms subsided until he and his family were cured.

"They could have put city water in for $170," he said in an interview on Friday.

Valerie Smith, a spokesperson for PNM, said that San Juan Generating Station has been a "zero discharge plant since 1983."

"We are in compliance with all rules regarding water, including the terms of a settlement reached in March 2012 with Sierra Club," she said. "This agreement settled a 2010 lawsuit by Sierra Club and involves the construction of a slurry wall."

The lawsuit alleged that coal ash and other contaminants at San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine were polluting the surrounding surface and ground water, according to a March 2012 Sierra Club press release.

Smith said that PNM's official stance is that the allegations in the suit were unwarranted, but that the settlement was agreed to in order to avoid further lawsuits.

The coal ash is now stored inside San Juan Mine, Smith said, and is handled by BHP Billiton.

Pat Risner, asset president of the mining company's New Mexico Coal division, said that the mining company transports the coal ash from the power plant and stores it in old surface mining pits on their premises.

Mine employees backfill the pit, cover the last 10 feet with a layer of soil, seed it with native plants and irrigate until the plants take root and grow into their new environment, Risner said.

The end result is meant to restore the mined area to its original, pre-mined state, he said.

A study by the University of New Mexico Department of Civil Engineering published in July 2012 and provided to The Daily Times by David Clark, ecologist for the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division Coal Mine Reclamation Program, found low levels of heavy metals in the ash, a low risk of water infiltration into the pits and a low risk of ash contaminating outside water sources.

A four-year ground and surface water study by the U.S. Geological Survey at the ash disposal sites is scheduled to be completed around summer 2014, Clark said.

"The key point is that (ash disposal) has been studied by independent entities a number of times," Risner said. "Our practices, we think, are consistent with the best way to manage (the ash)." But for one Navajo activist, these efforts are not enough.

Little Water resident Sarah Jane White says the power plant and mine are polluting the water and the air.

"You can see the pollution," she said. "In the winter, it settles down low to the ground. That's when people are more sick in this area. In my young days ... if we were sick, it was a normal cold or flu. I'd never see anyone with oxygen tanks, these dialysis centers, these stomach problems ... now I hear about it. I've seen it."

White attributes the rise in health issues to pollution from the power plant, both in burned emissions and from the ash. A bill that could change the way coal ash is managed was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is not expected to bring it to the floor.

The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2013 would change the way certain coal ash containment facilities are regulated.

Risner said that the backfilled mines at San Juan Mine would be unaffected by the bill.

And both of New Mexico's senators stressed the need for a balance between responsible environmental stewardship and maintaining reasonable utility prices.

"Senator Udall believes the (federal) government should make its decision on the proper standards for handling coal ash based on science, not politics," said Jennifer Talhelm, communications director for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in a statement on Friday. "He feels strongly that the government's responsibility is to protect people, water supplies and soil from contamination in a way that is also reasonable and workable for utilities."

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said ensuring that coal ash is stored responsibly is a priority, in a statement issued to The Daily Times on Friday.

"It's important to (store coal ash) in a way that allows the continued beneficial use of these wastes in construction materials and for mine reclamation, but we also need to make sure that disposal facilities meet environmental standards that safeguard public health and safety," Heinrich said.

Although the future of coal ash legislation and management remains unclear, for Waterflow residents like Hunt the situation is clear.

PNM and BHP Billiton do not care about the environment or about protecting residents living near their facilities, he said.

"All they care about is the stockholders, and they give you the 'Christian cross,'" Hunt said. "You know what that is?"

He raised his left arm up, made a fist and extended his middle finger.

Greg Yee covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and gyee@daily-times.com. Follow him @GYeeDT on Twitter.