The life and death of Desert Rock

The Navajo Nation's proposed coal plant always rested on shaky ground. Now, it may collapse entirely.

 

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The move alienated many in the Burnham Chapter -- one of 110 local government subdivisions on the reservation -- where the plant would be located, and soon after Desert Rock went public, Burnham's members defeated a resolution to support the plant. Undeterred, the tribal government adjusted chapter boundaries, pushing Desert Rock onto the neighboring Nenahnezad Chapter, which then passed a resolution supporting it. "That was how it started," says Goodman. "And it's been like that ever since."

So Diné CARE began spreading the word that many Navajo people oppose Desert Rock. Along with the resistance group Dooda ("absolutely not") Desert Rock, elders and families also began to demonstrate against the plant, organizing blockades against Sithe and occupying a makeshift protest camp at the plant's site. 

Meanwhile, the Four Corners-area nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance took notice of the project, and the organization's New Mexico energy coordinator, Mike Eisenfeld, began poring over regulatory documents, e-mail messages and meeting notes obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. In 2006, when the project's lobbyists began seeking tax relief from the New Mexico Legislature, claiming that it was necessary to make Desert Rock economically viable, Eisenfeld was there. "When (lobbyist Dick) Minzer was asked if they had their permits, he said, 'Yes,' " says Eisenfeld with a shake of his head. "And we're in the back" -- he raises his hand -- "saying, 'No!'" 

For three years running, the Legislature denied the lobbyists' requests, in large part because of the proposed plant's environmental impact on the state, says state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. Even so, opposition to the plant came almost entirely from the three grassroots groups. New Mexico's congressional delegation either supported the project, as with now-retired Sen. Pete Domenici, R, or deferred to tribal sovereignty, as with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D. And Sen. Tom Udall, D, formerly a U.S. representative, has consistently said Desert Rock would mean much-needed economic development for the Navajo. It wasn't until five years into the project's planning that the state of New Mexico itself stepped directly into the fray.

In July 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that Desert Rock would not worsen pollution in the Four Corners region and issued it a key air-quality permit. Three months later, New Mexico joined environmental groups in appealing the decision. The state contended that the EPA failed to consider how Desert Rock would affect visibility within nearby national parks and failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how the plant's emissions might increase water-borne levels of mercury and selenium and affect two endangered fish in the San Juan River. The state also asked the agency to consider evidence it had previously ignored -- that regional ozone pollution levels exceeded federal health-based air quality standards even without Desert Rock, which would add not only ozone and greenhouse gas emissions, but also mercury, sulfates, nitrates, carbon monoxide and both fine and large particulate matter. The region already hosts three coal plants, including the 1,800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station and the 2,200-megawatt Four Corners plant, as well as tens of thousands of oil and gas wells. 

As a result of the appeal, the EPA announced it was reconsidering portions of the air permit in early 2009. Nine months later, it reversed its Bush-era decision entirely -- in part because the permit lacked emission limitations for carbon dioxide. Developers had also had failed to complete a required consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the two endangered fish. Shortly after that, the Bureau of Indian Affairs withdrew its biological opinion in support of the plant, acknowledging that Fish and Wildlife had "significant concerns" about the impact of the plant's potential mercury and selenium discharges on the San Juan River's fish. Without that document, the project's environmental impact statement remains incomplete. And without that, most other permits -- for mine expansion to feed the plant as well as the plant itself -- are impossible to obtain.

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