The Bureau of Indian Affairs made available on Monday a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) draft that recommends the proposed coal-fired Desert Rock Power Plant project continues forward as planned.
The Desert Rock Energy Company — formed of Houston-based developer Sithe Global and the Diné Power Authority, a Navajo Nation enterprise — wants to build a 1,500-megawatt power plant near Burnham on the Navajo Nation. The company received a draft air permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring and the EIS marks the second of several steps needed to move forward with the project, which could begin as early as next year.
"It's been some time since we've been working on this, and I'm glad we're finally at the point of getting it out," said Steven Begay, Diné Power Authority general manager.
The document, available online at www.desertrockenergy.com, compared the environmental effects of taking no action, building the plant as proposed or building a scaled down, 550-megawatt version of the power plant. Per megawatt generated, the proposed 1,500-megawatt plant is cleaner, though it would emit more total emissions, the statement says.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not reply to questions asked about the environmental impact statement by deadline on Monday.
The amount of carbon dioxide the proposed plant would emit, 12.7 million tons annually, astounded Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico staff organizer for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. He criticized the bureau for neglecting to consider more alternatives and worried about comments he felt were glossed over.
The document states environmental justice is a concern regardless of the alternative chosen because the area is populated disproportionately with minorities and low-income residents. The bureau determined air pollutions would increase under both action alternatives but not beyond health-protective standards. It also stated the cumulative cancer risk is greater than what the U.S. EPA considers acceptable, but attributed it to existing concentrations of arsenic in the soil and native vegetation.
"When you say that, in your document, that these things are going to happen, how do you expect people who live in these communities to respond?" Eisenfeld asked.
Begay considered the question of environmental justice to be a conundrum.
"It's an oxymoron to me either way," he said. "If there are massive power outages and the whole country blacks out, is that environmental justice or injustice? Who's winning? I don't know."
Opponents have criticized the plant's developers because the energy generated likely would feed large metro markets in the West, such as Las Vegas or Phoenix. Proponents have cited the rapidly growing need for power in the Southwest as a reason to build the plant, in addition to the economic benefits it would bring the Navajo Nation and surrounding communities.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Sithe Global, called the draft statement an important step forward to helping the Navajo Nation realize the benefits of the plant. At least 400 jobs will be created through its construction and the Navajo Nation would increase its annual budget by a third through lease payments.
"The environmental justice issue is flipped on its head here," he said, noting the power plant will improve the quality of life for Navajos by creating jobs and funding tribal programs.
Residents have 60 days to comment on the draft statement after a notice of availability has been published in the Federal Register. Written comments can be mailed to Harrilene Yazzi, regional NEPA coordinator, Desert Rock Energy Project EIS, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo Regional Office, P.O. Box 1060, Gallup, NM 87305.
Comments can be e-mailed through the project Web site, www.desertrockenergy.com, because the bureau does not have e-mail access. Oral comments can be taken at public hearings planned on the Navajo Nation, San Juan County and in southwest Colorado. Hearing dates will be announced soon.
Lisa Meerts: firstname.lastname@example.org