Feds sued over Fruitland power plant, mine

James Fenton
A bulldozer shovels coal in March at the Dixon Pit at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland.

FARMINGTON – A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the U.S. Department of the Interior's 25-year extension of operations at the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine in Fruitland.

Attorneys for the Western Environmental Law Center, the Center for Biological Diversity and others filed the complaint representing the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and other environmental groups in Arizona's federal district court on Wednesday. The joint legal action came after a notice of intent to file was originally made by the coalition in December.

The DOI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, DOI Secretary Sally Jewell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement were named as defendants.

The groups' 58-page complaint  challenges the federal agencies' "arbitrary, capricious and unlawful failure" to more thoroughly analyze the potential impacts to the environment, public health and endangered species from operations at the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine.

The civil action cities violations of the Endangered Species Act and claims under the National Environmental Policy Act, and directs the environmental groups' criticism against the Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other federal agencies for approving the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine Energy Project last July.

Approved by Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor, the Record of Decision approved 25 years more of operations at the coal-fired plant and surface mine until 2041.

Amanda Degroff, a DOI spokeswoman, said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

Workers are seen guiding vehicles on the main road earlier this year at the Four Corners Power Plant in Fruitland.

Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance in Farmington said in a press release that the federal agencies also failed by not considering other energy alternatives during their review of the coal-fired power plant and coal mine.

"Four Corners region coal has enabled far-off places like Phoenix and Southern California to thrive, so now that coal is on a permanent decline, we deserve real attention to how our region can diversify going forward,” Eisenfeld said. “Given the energy landscape today, it’s a serious disservice for government leaders to just tell the Four Corners to stick with collapsing coal without even a look at alternatives."

Steven Gotfried — spokesman for the Arizona Public Service Company, the majority utility owner of the Fruitland power plant  — said in an emailed statement that the utility stands by the federal agency's decision.

"The Department of the Interior followed a comprehensive, thorough and transparent evaluation of the environmental impacts of the plant, the mine and the transmission line rights-of-way in coming to its conclusion,” Gotfried said.

The Navajo Mine, which is owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, is the sole provider of sub-bituminous coal burned to generate electricity at the Four Corners Power Plant. The plant is cooled by water from Morgan Lake, which is man made and fed by the nearby San Juan River.

NTEC spokesman Erny Zah said much of the argument made in the filing consists of points already made in earlier complaints that have since been nullified in the courts.

"We do all the necessary paperwork, undergo studies to ensure that all of our operations are in compliance with federal law," Zah said in a phone interview. "The environmental groups will then sue the government to disturb the approved operations. It's an expected action on their part. This is not anything new. Any time a major permit is issued or decision is made, these groups will come together and formulate a plan to take an entity to court."

Coal operations on the Navajo Nation also deliver millions of dollars each year to the tribal government to pay for general fund projects. Last year, NTEC contributed more than $35 million, largely in the form of taxes and royalties, to the Navajo Nation, Zah said.

Zah said NTEC is also pursuing the purchase of a 7 percent ownership interest in the power plant, representing about 107 megawatts of its output. NTEC expects to finalize the acquisition by July.

Shiloh Hernandez of the WELC said in a phone interview that he hopes the federal agencies will reconsider approval of coal-based energy production in the Four Corners region.

"We’re hopeful that agencies will be wiling to talk to us about this," Hernandez said. "We’re certainly open to dialogue (with them)."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.