Deputy Interior Secretary OKs continuing operations at Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine for next 25 years

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — On Friday, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor approved a "Record of Decision" that will allow operations to continue at the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine for another 25 years.

The federal government's 441-page document allows the mine to provide coal for the power plant until 2041.

"Today's decision includes a robust suite of mitigation measures designed to reduce the potential environmental impacts of the project to the greatest extent possible, while still supporting earlier pollution reduction measures, and promoting tribal self-determination and economic development," Connor said in a statement.

Pat Risner, BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal Division Asset president, has been closely involved in the process since 2011. BHP initiated the plan to seek a mining permit for a southern extension into the 5,600-acre Pinabete area of the Navajo Mine. The permit request led to a three-year process of analyzing the environmental impacts of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act. Navajo Mine is the sole supplier of coal to the Four Corners Power Plant, which generates 1,540 megawatts of energy.

BHP sold the mine to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a Navajo Nation enterprise, for $85 million in 2013.

"We're just really pleased that the outcome ensures the sustainability of the mine ... which has been critical for us in all the actions that we've taken," Risner said in a phone interview on Friday. "This shows that it does not have significant adverse effects on the environment or communities we serve and allows us to continue that employment and revenue stream from the mine and power plant into the future."

BHP is committed to operating the mine until the end of 2016 while NTEC looks for a new mine manager, Risner said.

"It's been a great team effort and a very long process with a lot of work by our partners — NTEC and Arizona Public Service — to get to this point," Risner said.

"We've always believed that the way in which we operate the business in collaboration with NTEC, our partner now, has been one that strikes the right balance between minimizing impacts on the environment and communities and, of course, supporting our communities with the socioeconomic benefits. We're just pleased that the (environmental impact statement) shows that."

NTEC CEO Clark Moseley said the decision ensures that more than 800 jobs at both the mine and power plant will continue as well as significant tax revenues go to the Navajo Nation. NTEC provided the Navajo Nation with about $38 million in coal taxes and royalties last year.

"We are pleased with the process and the Record of Decision," Moseley said in a statement. "The decision allows Navajo Mine to continue to responsibly operate as a coal supplier to Four Corners Power Plant and will maintain hundreds of high-paying jobs in the area. The continued operations will also ensure continued critical revenues for the Navajo Nation."

Friday's decision comes with a supporting final draft of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, that analyzes the energy project's anticipated effects on air emissions, greenhouse gases, water quality and other resources. The final EIS was published on May 1 and was produced in collaboration between multiple agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — and the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe.

Sarah Jane White of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a Navajo environmental group, said the process allowed little time to adequately review all the documentation, including the 4,000-page EIS.

"I'm angry. I'm mad. I live in Little Water and I live in Fruitland as do my children and my grandchildren," White said in a phone interview on Friday. "We live between both power plants and right across from the coal mine. Another 25 years. That's a lot of years for people. That's too many years. It's really devastating."

White said the Navajo Nation administration and Division of Natural Resources failed to hear her group's requests for more time.

"I'm upset with the Navajo Nation. They dropped the ball," she said. "We got over 4,000 pages — three big books — and we didn't have enough time to go through everything, so we asked the president and we asked the resource department to help the Navajo people to request an extension. ... They rushed us. It's just not fair."

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye was in Albuquerque on Friday and did not release a statement on the decision. Rick Abasta, spokesman for the Office of the President and Vice President, deferred to statements made by NTEC regarding the Record of Decision.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.