PRC hearing over power plant draws full house in Farmington

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — More than 150 people filled the City Council chambers at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon to hear or offer public comments over an application by the Public Service Company of New Mexico to close two units at a local power generating station, with a heavy majority of those in attendance supporting the plan.

The 90-minute session was the first of two hearings held on Wednesday before the members of the state Public Regulation Commission to explore PNM's plan to shut down units 2 and 3 at San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow. Members of the crowd — including city and county officials, Navajo Nation representatives, business leaders, former employees of the power plant, and residents who said pollution from the plant posed health and safety concerns — were offered four minutes apiece in which to speak.

Despite the health and environmental risks that were raised over the plant, supporters said the power plant brought a number of good things to the region — good-paying jobs, a reliable power supply and a steady source of revenue.

Chris Hunter, the regional manager for the statewide nonprofit business group WESST, endorsed the plan and praised the contributions of the facility to the area's economic health.

"I believe that the plant and the (coal) mine's continued operation (are) good for our community, as well as for New Mexico as a whole," Hunter said. "PNM has been an excellent corporate citizen. ... Taken together, the environmental improvements the plan will make, the importance of jobs that we simply are not able to replace in our community with anywhere near the level of pay and benefits that PNM and the San Juan mine afford, and the importance of these facilities to our small business community and tax base, lead me again to ask for your support of the plan."

San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter said the county, which he said has seen a $53 million loss in revenues over the last five years, would be further impacted if PNM's plan were not realized.

"PNM and the mine both are significant property tax payers for San Juan County," Carpenter said. "The loss of those revenues would be devastating for a number of reasons — the children within the school district adjacent to the site would be affected, the college's funds would be affected and, obviously, the county's general fund."

Scott Miller drove up from his home in Santa Fe to speak in opposition to PNM's plan.

"Coal is closing all over the U.S. The question is, what will the replacement power source be?" Miller said. "PNM's $7 billion-dollar-plus price tag from toxic assets is just the beginning of a costly environmental nightmare."

Mayor Tommy Roberts said that he felt all the comments that were made at the hearing were valid as he shared his support for the plan.

"In my opinion, there are three principal components of a healthy community — the physical health of our citizens and residents, the environmental health of our community, and the socioeconomic health of our community," Roberts said. "What we have to do as decision-makers is to find the right balance and come up with a solution that recognizes there are competing interests. ... In my opinion, you have before you a plan that takes into consideration all those elements of the overall health of the community. And I think you have a plan that, if implemented, will provide a very sound template for the future operations of San Juan Generating Station and our community that will provide a benefit that we seek as a community — physical protection and health, environmental health and socioeconomic health."

Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said after the hearing that while he values the mayor's remarks, the dangers posed by coal and nuclear power outweigh the economic security the plant represents.

"I think it's a good thing, the community asking questions," Eisenfeld said. "I appreciate our mayor saying there's a diversity of opinion. I can tell you as a resident here for 18 years that the meetings weren't always this cordial. PNM, they keep telling us they can't do renewable energy projects here, and it's like, 'Why not?' I think we should raise the bar. We shouldn't just go, 'Coal and nuclear are the answer' because clearly they're not."

Einsenfeld said PNM's plan should include a sizable increase in its use of renewable energies like solar power.

"PNM could go a long way to putting at least 100 megawatts of solar," he said. "My organization, we would help them permit it."

Before the afternoon hearing concluded, PRC vice chairwoman Lynda Lovejoy acted on the suggestion of Ray Hagerman, Four Corners Economic Development executive director, and asked the crowd for a hand count for or against the plan. Hands in favor of the plan outnumbered those against it by a margin of 10-1.

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.