About five miles south of Hunt's place, a flat-topped mound spreads out under the soot-stained smokestacks of the Four Corners Power Plant, operated by Arizona Public Service. Unlike the beige, scrub-covered mesas nearby, this one's uniformly shaped; its dusty soil is grey and smooth, deep-orange water pools on its surface, and nothing grows here.
That's because this isn't a mesa. It's some 40 years' worth of accumulated coal combustion waste - somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million tons - from three of the plant's five generators (the other 50 million tons of waste is buried nearby, in the massive Navajo surface mine).
For people who worry about coal combustion waste and the way it's regulated, this place is Exhibit A. "My first thought when I saw this," says Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, "was, this can't be the United States."
Except that it is. And, by all accounts, there's nothing about the massive pile that violates state or national guidelines. Therein lies the rub for folks like Evans and Jeff Stant, a consultant for the Clean Air Task Force and one of the nation's pre-eminent activists when it comes to CCWs. Coal waste is clearly dangerous, they say, but the EPA refuses to treat it as hazardous waste. Instead, it falls under the rules for non-municipal, non-hazardous waste, which provide only general guidelines. The result is a hodgepodge of regulation that varies from state to state and even from one dumpsite to another at the same power plant. Thirty percent of the nation's electricity is produced in states - including New Mexico - that exempt CCWs from some or all solid waste regulations. Dumping the waste in a mine (as Four Corners does with two-thirds of its waste) is regulated by the state's mining agency, while dumping it elsewhere may fall under some other department's domain.
It's not that the EPA hasn't considered clamping down. In 2000, the agency determined the need for national regulation, acknowledging that "these wastes could pose risks to human health ... and there is sufficient evidence that adequate controls may not be in place." But seven years have passed, and the EPA hasn't followed through. That's in spite of the fact that its own research has found that placing CCWs in unlined ponds or piles can significantly increase health risks for those living nearby (and there are hundreds of unlined sites across the country); and in spite of the fact that the agency has confirmed at least 24 cases in which human or ecological health has been compromised by CCW dumping. One of the most recent cases made headlines in September, when health officials in Maryland determined that a flyash dump there had contaminated two dozen drinking wells with arsenic, beryllium, lead and sulfates.
According to EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith, the agency has not yet acted in part because state and industry standards have improved. Last year a consortium of utilities presented their own voluntary standards for dealing with CCWs. The EPA says that plan, along with the fact that 98 percent of new disposal sites have liners, justifies its refusal thus far to take further action.
Indeed, even without regulatory pressure, Four Corners Power Plant is headed toward a cleaner future. According to APS spokesman Steven Gotfried, the company is building new dumpsites to handle all of its waste, including the stuff now dumped in the mine. The new ponds, he says, will be lined with synthetic liners, which should virtually eliminate the possibility of toxins leaching into groundwater.
But there are still hundreds of old disposal sites - some 600 of them in the U.S. - like the one at Four Corners, half of which are unlined. And they're not going anywhere.
Just a few miles south of the Four Corners Power Plant, plans are well under way to build the 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant. The plant's proponents tout its efficiency and they plan to cut 80 percent of the mercury emissions. Someday, they say - once the technology is developed - they'll be able to suck carbon dioxide out of the plant's stacks and safely sequester it.
But of the combustion waste, they say little.
"We believe it will be put to beneficial use," says Tom Johns, a vice president with Sithe Global, the company developing Desert Rock. Indeed, some of the flyash could end up serving as a substitute for cement or as road grade. But markets for such products aren't that abundant, and currently less than 40 percent of the nation's CCWs are recycled.
Meanwhile, every pound of pollutants taken out of the air to make this plant "clean" must go somewhere. "Basically, the words 'clean coal technology' are an oxymoron," says Stant. "There's no such thing as that. Matter doesn't disappear."
Instead, that matter - along with the mercury and the other unpleasant leftovers - ends up buried or piled up out in the desert. From one such pile near the Four Corners plant, a grey plume floats high into the air whenever a wind picks up. Next to that heap, Raymond Hunt's big truck looks like a toy, and his crusade seems hopeless. And jutting out of the ground in a seemingly random location, looking almost as if it were placed there as a joke, is a sign. "No Trash Dumping," it says. "Walk in Beauty."
The author is the magazine's editor.