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Know the West

A Nevada power plant earns itself a lawsuit


WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - South of Las Vegas, Nev., the Mohave Generating Station remains the last coal-fired power plant in the Southwest to resist installing pollution controls. Now, the plant, one of the largest sulfur dioxide polluters in the West and a significant polluter of the Grand Canyon, sits in the crosshairs of the federal government and two environmental groups intent on forcing Mohave's managers to reduce its emissions.

The Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust announced Feb. 19 that they are suing the plant's owners in federal district court in Las Vegas over sulfur dioxide emissions, some 40,000 tons a year. They want the plant, which generates 1,500 megawatts of power, largely for the cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, to spend $250 million to install scrubbing technology to reduce emissions by 80 percent.

But here in Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation and 273 miles from the Mohave Generating Station, the concern is over jobs and revenue. The Mohave Generating Station is the only customer of the Peabody Western Coal Company's Black Mesa Mine, which sits on Navajo land and contributes revenues to the Navajo and Hopi tribes. The mine employs 260 tribal members.

The groups' decision to file a suit is "disappointing," says Nader Mansour, manager of environmental regulations for Southern California Edison, the plant's principal owner. "There's no way the (plant) can absorb the expense and still remain profitable," Mansour says. He claims the work would add 30 to 40 percent to production costs. "There needs to be a collaborative process where all the stakeholders can sit around the table together and try to identify a solution."

The Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe have joined with the plant's managers in asking the environmental groups and the EPA for restraint. Navajo Nation President Albert Hale says environmental groups should have consulted with the tribe before threatening legal action. "Any solution," he said, "must consider Navajo rights and the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation."

In January, Wayne Taylor, the new Hopi tribal chairman, warned EPA officials that if the mine closed, revenue losses would devastate the tribe. "The social cost to Hopi families from such losses would be staggering," he said.

Fifteen percent, or $16 million, of the Navajo Nation's general fund revenues comes directly from coal the Black Mesa Mine sells to the power plant, while the Hopi Tribe draws 20 percent of its budget, or $3 million, from those sales.

But officials at the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club point out that Southern California Edison and the Mohave plant's other co-owners, including the Nevada Power Co., the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Salt River Project, have combined assets of $32 billion. "They could afford to pay for the scrubbers in one year and still make a profit," says Rob Smith, the Sierra Club's Southwest director.

The last violator

Rick Moore, air quality program officer for the Grand Canyon Trust, says the Mohave plant, which went on line in 1971, is the last of the Colorado Plateau's 17 coal-fired power plants to continuously violate federal clean-air standards. With two other Western coal-fired power plants now installing sulfur dioxide scrubbers, the Mohave plant will soon be the West's single largest source of sulfur dioxide pollution.

"It's time for Edison to start acting as a good corporate citizen and clean up the air," he says.

Moore adds that the preliminary results of the Mohave Project, an on-going Environmental Protection Agency and Southern California Edison study, show that on days with a strong southeast wind, the Mohave plant is responsible for as much as 67 percent of the sulfate pollution over the Grand Canyon. The study also shows that on those days the plant is responsible for as much as 44 percent of reduced visibility because of sulfate particles in the air.

But the study, which is experimenting with a half-dozen pollution measuring models, also shows that pollution levels at the canyon change dramatically with wind direction and speed. On some days pollution is nil. Still, when figures are averaged over a year, Moore says, the Mohave plant could be responsible for between 4 and 15 percent of the daily pollution over the canyon. Researchers plan to release more conclusive results from the study this summer.

A court battle looms

Navajo and Hopi officials say all they can do at the moment is monitor the EPA investigation and the environmental groups' suit. Says Navajo spokesman Ted Rushton, "Until something happens, it's premature to say we are going to do anything."

Meanwhile, Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club say they are preparing for a court battle. The groups have offered to negotiate a solution with Southern California Edison, but the company hasn't responded to any of the groups' specific allegations. Says the Trust's Rick Moore, "Nothing short of a contract in the mail from the CEO of Edison saying they will clean (the plant up) will stop us."

Freelance writer Bill Donovan contributed to this story.

You can contact ...

* Grand Canyon Trust at 520/774-7488;

* The Navajo Nation at 520/871-7919;

* Southern California Edison at 626/302-2255.