Environmental coalition to sue over plant, mine

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

FARMINGTON — Last month, a coalition of environmental groups gave legal notice of plans to oppose several federal agencies' approval of operations at Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine.

The groups on Dec. 21 filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Office of Surface Mining, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies for approving the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine Energy Project last summer. The approval gave the coal-fired plant the ability to operate until 2041.

The coalition includes the environmental groups Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Amigos Bravos, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.

In a statement, Colleen Cooley of Diné CARE said that the approvals present a challenge to the health and economic viability of the Navajo Nation and surrounding communities.

“While the rest of the world is transitioning to alternative forms of energy, the Four Corners Power Plant continues to burn coal and will do so for the next 25 years,” Cooley said. “Prolonging coal not only condemns our health and the water, air, and land around us, it undermines our community’s economic future because we are not investing and transitioning to clean energy. Even former owner of the Navajo Mine, BHP Billiton has exited many coal contracts across the globe because coal is no longer economically feasible.”

The lawsuit announcement by the coalition contends that the U.S. government’s impact study on the coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplies it was flawed. The groups claim the study failed to look at enough viable clean energy alternatives for power generation at the plant and failed to consider the impacts from carbon pollution, including  threats to public health, endangered species, water contamination from coal ash waste, and "impacts to Navajo culture," according to the release.

Arizona Public Service Company, the majority utility owner of Four Corners Power Plant, stands by the government agencies' review of the plant and coal mine.

Steven Gotfried, APS spokesman, said the federal government's study of the plant and mine project was sound and the plant generates electricity efficiently.

Nathan Tohtsoni, an Arizona Public Service employee, points to an area at the Four Corners Power Plant in Fruitland, as seen Oct., 12, where retrofitting has begun to allow the plant to meet federal haze regulations.

Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance said the federal government did not adequately and honestly evaluate the environmental impacts from continued operations at the plant and coal mine.

“The U.S. government supposedly sees the importance of the transition to the clean energy economy nowadays, so it’s really an affront to Four Corners area residents when the feds won’t even provide honest evaluation of pollution or solar and wind alternatives at Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine,” Eisenfeld said. “All of us in the Southwest deserve at least an honest expert analysis.”

The coalition's intent letter cites threats to endangered species such as the Colorado pike minnow and razorback suckers created by adverse impacts on habitat, water quality and their ability to spawn, all violations of the Endangered Species Act, the letter says.

The plant and mine are also "leading sources" of airborne mercury and selenium pollution in the basin according to the letter
"(Mercury and selenium) are also released from ... coal combustion waste impoundments and lagoons via groundwater to the San Juan River and its tributaries," the letter says. "These pollutants are also released via water pollution discharges from mining and power plant operations to surface and groundwater."

In addition to the lease extension, which was approved in February 2011 by the Navajo Nation Council, the BIA also approved 323 transmission line rights of way between the Fruitland plant and the Navajo Nation. 

The approvals last summer concluded a multi-year process to complete the environmental impact statement for the plant and mine energy project. In May, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued the final environmental impact statement on the 52-year-old plant .

The groups are being represented by attorneys Shiloh Hernandez, Matt Kenna, Kyle Tisdel and Laura King of the Western Environmental Law Center and the Center for Biological Diversity's John Barth and Michael Saul.

Hernandez accused the federal government of skirting established law to accommodate the plant's 25-year extension.

“Federal agencies must assure that coal operations follow the law. What agencies can’t do is bend the law to accommodate coal operations, but that’s just what they did here,” Hernandez said. “What this really shows is the outdated and heavily polluting Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant can’t operate in compliance with the law. These facilities are obsolete and need to transition.”

But, after committing to installing pollution controls worth hundreds of millions of dollars, plant operators say they are good environmental citizens.

“The Office of Surface Mining and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did a thorough job evaluating the environmental impacts of the continuing operation of the Four Corners Power Plant, and we’re confident the agencies will vigorously and successfully defend their analyses," said Gotfried, the Arizona Public Service Company spokesman. "The Four Corners Power Plant provides cleaner energy and is more efficient than at any time in its history. It is a critical source of reliable and affordable electricity to the people of the Southwest and a key economic driver to the Farmington area and the Navajo Nation.”

Erny Zah, sokesman for Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a tribal entity created by the Navajo Nation to own and oversee operations at Navajo Mine, is waiting for an actual court filing to appear before it responds.

A front end loader dumps coal in to a hauler, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at a mining operation at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland N.M.

"Nothing has been filed yet. In any event, both the Biological Opinion and the Final Environmental Impact Statement demonstrate that the regulators are taking their environmental duties very seriously. If a suit were filed, we believe it would be dismissed,"  Zah said in a statement.

The 60-day notice of intent to sue means the coalition is expected to file its lawsuit on Feb. 20.

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