Environmental advocacy group looks for signs of contamination while touring power plant

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

WATERFLOW — Mariel Nanasi paused while driving up to the San Juan Generating Station to take a picture.

Since 2008, she has been fighting to get the plant closed, and Oct. 28 was her first time stepping onto the property. Nanasi is the executive director of the environmental advocacy group New Energy Economy, based out of Santa Fe.

"It's been a long time coming, but we're welcoming the closure of the plant in 2022," Nanasi said.

While New Energy Economy supports plans to close the power plant in 2022, Nanasi has concerns about how nearly half a century of coal-fired generation has impacted the land and water. She filed a motion to compel with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to get access to the power plant site.

In mid-October, the PRC ordered the Public Service Company of New Mexico to grant her access along with her expert witness, Mark Hutson — a geologist who studies contamination at sites like the San Juan Generating Station. 

Mariel Nanasi, Mark Hutson and Norman Norvelle look at a sealed pond, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, at San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow.

Nanasi and Hutson visited the site with Farmington activist David Fosdeck and former San Juan Generating Station employee Norman Norvelle.

MORE:PNM employees are preparing for the closure of San Juan Generating Station

She said her visit to the site was an attempt to understand the processes at the San Juan Generating Station.

PNM hopes visit clarified questions

PNM spokesman Raymond Sandoval said Nanasi's visit an opportunity for PNM to clarify some of the misunderstandings and he hopes both parties will be better off following the visit. 

At center, Mark Hutson examines an aerial map of the San Juan Generating Station and surrounding area, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, while standing near the Shumway Arroyo in Waterflow.

"We were happy to have them there because hopefully this will lead to some clarity," Sandoval said, adding that he hopes New Energy Economy could get many of its questions answered during the tour of the plant.

While the PRC does not have the authority to order Westmoreland Coal Company to let Nanasi visit the San Juan Mine, the company allowed her to visit the mine site following the San Juan Generating Station tour and Westmoreland officials answered questions about coal ash disposal at the mine.

NEE maintains shareholders should pay for cleanup

Nanasi said she is concerned about what level of contamination could be in the soil and water.

“We want PNM to be responsible for the cleanup and not ratepayers,” Nanasi said.

Nanasi’s motion to compel came as the PRC considers PNM’s application to close the power plant and refinance the past investments into the power plant using a tool known as securitization. This would provide PNM with low-interest bonds that would be paid by ratepayers.

Securitization became possible when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Energy Transition Act into law. The Energy Transition Act requires PNM to spend up to $30 million of the bond money for reclamation and decommissioning.

More:Does NM's new energy law apply to San Juan Generating Station? That depends on who you ask

Nanasi wants PNM shareholders to foot that bill instead.

"We believe that is a very important part of corporate accountability," she said.

Sandoval said the PNM shareholders will be foregoing $109 million of future profits if the utility is able to use securitization. He said securitization ensures the shareholders recover past investment, but does not allow them to profit.

However, there is current debate about whether the Energy Transition Act can legally be applied to the case. If the new law does not apply, PNM cannot use securitization. Sandoval said that could put Nanasi in a better position to argue for shareholders footing the bill.

NEE expert took a single sample 

After the tour, Hutson said there wasn't anything that immediately stood out to him as cause for alarm, but he will need to evaluate the data before he makes any conclusions.

“I was just looking to see how things are located in comparison to other things,” he said.

The PRC ordered PNM to allow New Energy Economy to take soil and water samples as the advocacy group seeks to prove the San Juan Generating Station has had negative effects on human health and the environment.

PNM brought in a team of contractors to join New Energy Economy on the tour and take samples as well.

MORE: NMED data details industry-reported excess emissions, including why they occurred

However, during the hours they spent at the San Juan Generating Station and surrounding areas, New Energy Economy took a sample from a single site — water from the Shumway Arroyo. This sample was taken on Bureau of Land Management property a short distance from the San Juan Generating Station site and Nanasi had previously visited the location in May.

PNM’s contractors took a water sample from the same location that will be sent to a lab for independent analysis. Both samples will be tested for metals associated with coal combustion.

Shumway Arroyo is one area of concern for New Energy Economy

PNM Environmental Manager John Hale said when the San Juan Generating Station was first built in the mid-1970s the Shumway Arroyo was used for discharge from the power plant. In the 1980s, PNM faced a lawsuit due to that practice. The lawsuit resulted in PNM changing its practices. Instead of discharging into the arroyo, the utility began using evaporation ponds to dispose of wastewater from the operations. Hale said the San Juan Generating Station is now a zero-discharge facility.

There is little data about water quality in the Shumway Arroyo prior to the 1970s. Hale said the U.S. Geological Survey did conduct some tests prior to the San Juan Generating Station being built. Those tests indicated the water quality in the arroyo is naturally not great.

New Energy Economy Executive Director Mariel Nanasi, center, asks questions while inspecting an arroyo, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, near the San Juan Generating Station.

PNM officials discuss past leaks, seeps and spills reported to NMED

Hale said there have been incidents over the years where equipment at the power plant has malfunctioned or broken, leading to leaks, seeps and spills. These are reported to the New Mexico Environment Department.

While Hale said he has never seen an incident where wastewater from the plant left the San Juan Generating Station site, he said there have been several smaller incidents.

This year, PNM has reported incidents to NMED, Hale said. 

MORE:Selch: Plans for carbon capture at power plant will help develop an emerging technology

In one instance, a pipe transporting processed water got a hole in it, according to Plant Manager Omni Warner. He said PNM excavated the soil to remove any potential contamination and repaired the line.

Warner and Hale said they do not believe any of the incidents reported to NMED this year could have impacted groundwater.

And, in 2008, PNM built a groundwater recovery system to monitor for potential impacts. This system went online in 2010 and PNM officials say they have not seen signs of the water quality changing in that time. 

Nanasi questions removal of culvert, files inquiry 

After visiting the site, Nanasi expressed concern about a pipe being removed on the Shumway Arroyo. This pipe, which PNM describes as a culvert, allowed people to drive over the arroyo. Nanasi questioned if the pipeline was removed to prevent New Energy Economy from accessing sites. 

Within hours of leaving the power plant, Nanasi filed a document with the PRC requesting additional documents from PNM, including communications about the removal of that pipe.

Hale said the culvert was installed to facilitate construction of a pump-back pipeline transporting water to the evaporation ponds. He said the culvert allowed construction crews to drive over the Shumway Arroyo without damaging water quality. This portion of the arroyo is located on Bureau of Land Management property and Hale said the lease with the BLM required PNM to remove the pipe and restore the land back to the way it was before construction began. 

Water flows into an evaporation pond, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, at the south side of the San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow.

"We've got to put the arroyo back the way it was, so we can't just leave the (culvert) in there because it wasn't that way before," Hale said.

He said the culvert was likely removed shortly after Nanasi visited the area in May. Documents provided by PNM show that the culvert was removed on June 22.

In addition to information regarding that culvert, Nanasi requested data from PNM's groundwater recovery system monitoring as well as all documentation of leaks or contamination since 2005 at the power plant.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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