« Return to this article

Know the West

Small Nevada tribe sues BLM over coal ash landfill


At a Southern Nevada Health District public hearing this October, farmer Norm Tom said that he and his tribe had “seen a lot of death” in the last 35 years, and he placed the blame squarely on the neighboring Reid Gardner coal-fueled power plant, run by Nevada's primary power company, NV Energy.

“Every time we make a complaint or a phone call, you guys haven’t done anything about controlling all this daggone dust.” Tom said.  “We breathe it; we even eat it…it’s better just to bring all the Indian people out and shoot ‘em all with a 45 caliber gun.”

Built in 1965, NV Energy’s Reid Gardner Station is located 45 miles northeast of Las Vegas and just a few hundred yards from the Moapa River Reservation, home to many of the 314 remaining Moapa Band of Paiutes. The plant supplies low-cost power to about 400,000 southern Nevada residents, and to do so burns through 60,000 tons of coal a day.

The Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant is located adjacent to the Moapa reservation. Image courtesy Sierra Club.

For years, the Moapa Band of Paiutes have complained that dust from the coal plant’s landfill and water evaporation ponds has regularly swept through the reservation, grinding up their lungs and afflicting nearly two-thirds of the tribe with a variety of upper respiratory illnesses and high rates of cancer and asthma-related deaths.

This past month, the tribe and the Sierra Club filed a filed a federal lawsuit to stop the construction of a new coal ash landfill and nine new evaporation ponds, which NV Energy officials says Reid Gardner needs because its old storage facilities are filling up.

The lawsuit is actually against the Bureau of Land Management, because it granted a right of way to NV Energy so the company can use 560 acres of adjacent public land for its expansion. The tribe and the Sierra Club argue this was approved in violation of National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

“According to the EPA study, coal ash is more likely to cause cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,“ said Vinny Spotleson, an organizer for Sierra Club. “The fact they’ve pushed this through without ever investigating the tribe’s complaints tells you a lot about the power dynamics at play. It’s ‘an out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that’s driving this.”

After coal is burned, about 10 percent remains as solid waste or coal ash, which contains a long list of dangerous toxins including arsenic, mercury and selenium. These heavy metals have been linked to serious illnesses [PDF] like cancer, neurological damage and respiratory problems, but the EPA has yet to officially classify coal ash as hazardous.

Coal ash ponds store a slurry of pollutants and water. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.

As part of the environmental impact statement [PDF] prepared for the project, the BLM asked the Southern Nevada Health District about the tribe’s health complaints. Yet health officials declined to investigate, arguing that it was impossible to draw “statistically significant conclusions” based on such a small population. Since the tribe averages eight deaths per year, it would take decades to collect meaningful data, they said.

Spotleson said this amounts to a “subtle form of racism,” and notes that when a tony Las Vegas suburb complained to the SNHD about a foul-smelling composting plant, it reacted quickly to move the facility within a year.

Spotleson also said large amounts of water are used in the landfill to collect the dust, and the runoff leaches into the groundwater, which feeds into the nearby Muddy River. Moapa means Muddy in the tribal language, and the tribe uses the river for religious ceremonies and recreation.

According to the tribe and Sierra Club, the new storage facility interferes with their cultural lifeways and their religious freedom as well as posing a health threat.

NV Energy officials counter that the new evaporation ponds will be located on a nearby mesa far away from the Muddy River basin and that the new landfill will be fitted with high-tech lining to prevent leaching. The only possible alternative to landfill expansion is to truck 60 loads of ash through the reservation to another facility about 30 miles a way, which they say will cost their customers about $500 million over the next 30 years (less than $42 per year per person).

The BLM also refers to these increased operating costs in its study and refers to shipping the coal ash offsite as “infeasible”, a tactic that a lawyer for the tribe calls a “warping” of the required investigation into alternative action plans.

The plan should take into account all the costs the landfill expansion, including the tribe’s health and whether expanding a private coal plant on BLM land is really in the public’s best interest.

To the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the extra $42 per customer must certainly seem like a small price to pay when the preservation of their health and culture is at stake.

Marc Dadigan is a freelance journalist based in Redding, California. He's currently living with the Winnemem Wintu tribe and writing a book about their spiritually guide salmon restoration project.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.