Coal’s other mess

As the air around power plants clears, another problem worsens

  • The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico burns 7 million tons of coal each year, kicking out more than 1.5 million tons of solid waste, most of which is piled up in the adjacent San Juan Mine

    JONATHAN THOMPSON
  • Raymond Hunt says the waste sickened his family and killed his sheep

    JONATHAN THOMPSON
 

WATERFLOW, NEW MEXICO-- Bits of blood speckle Raymond Hunt's scarred forearms as he saws off a fatty slab of meat. He wraps it in a piece of white paper and slides it across the counter to an elderly Navajo man.

Hunt's home and slaughterhouse sit on the bank of the Shumway Arroyo here in northwest New Mexico, about 15 miles west of Farmington. Just a few miles upstream, the smokestacks of the San Juan Generating Station, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States, tower over the barren desert.

"They'll completely destroy your whole goddamned life," he says, gesturing in the direction of the power plant.

Hunt hardly fits the profile of an environmentalist. After all, he kills sheep for a living (he specializes in mutton) and spouts politically incorrect aphorisms - he once compared divorcing his wife to shooting his dog. But when he's not supplying his customers with meat, he and a handful of allies are locked in fierce battle with the power plant and its owner.

Hunt's not upset about global warming or the pollutants that pour out of the plant's smokestacks. He's mad about coal combustion wastes - CCWs, as activists call them - the solid remnants left over from burning coal. Hunt says they've sickened his family and neighbors, even killed his sheep. Each year, power plants in the U.S. collectively kick out enough of this stuff to fill a train of coal cars stretching from Manhattan to Los Angeles and back three and a half times. It's stored in lagoons next to power plants, buried in old coal mines and sometimes just piled up in the open. It is the largest waste stream of most power plants, and a recently released study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people exposed to it have a much higher than average risk of getting cancer. Yet the federal government refuses to classify the waste as hazardous, and has dragged its feet on creating any nationally enforceable standards. And with new attention focused on coal power's impacts on the air, this great big problem may get worse, and continue to be ignored.

Underneath the northwestern New Mexico desert is the Fruitland formation, containing billions of tons of rich, low-sulfur coal. Add the water provided by the San Juan River, which cuts through the beige landscape like a green scar, and an impoverished, job-hungry populace, and you've got the perfect recipe for a power plant or three.

The Four Corners Power Plant was built on the south side of the San Juan River, just inside the Navajo Reservation, in 1963; the San Juan Generating Station went up a decade later, just nine miles away, on the north side of the river.

By the mid-1970s, the two plants together were cranking out nearly 4,000 megawatts of power and sending it to some 4 million homes in California, Nevada and Arizona. They spewed thousands of tons of particulates, sulfur dioxide and a host of other pollutants into the air. But that wouldn't last: New national air quality laws, paired with regional activism, forced the power companies to install pollution control devices so that, by the early 1980s, the plants' plumes had receded and the haze was reduced enough for the environmental community to breathe a sigh of relief.

But because every pound of pollution kept out of the air ends up in the solid waste stream, the pollution control methods in the stacks only made the problem on the ground worse. The solid waste consists of fine and dusty flyash, a gravelly, gray material called bottom ash, and the relatively benign glassy clinkers or boiler slag. The stack scrubbers that pull sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide out of the smoke create perhaps the most malignant material, called scrubber sludge. All of that was typically piled up near the plant, where it could blow into the air, or get washed into an arroyo, or leach into the ground.

In the early 1980s, people who lived along the Shumway Arroyo and drank from wells began getting sick. Hunt suffered from muscle spasms, lost 60 pounds and had a cornucopia of other problems. "I looked like a P.O.W. after World War II," Hunt says. His wife and kids got sick; his neighbors, too.

Though Hunt's illness was never definitively traced to a specific cause, he and other activists are pretty sure some of the stuff in coal combustion waste made it into his water. Around the time Hunt got sick, researchers found unusually high levels of selenium - which tends to be highly concentrated in coal combustion waste - in the Shumway Arroyo. And some of his symptoms match up with selenium poisoning. The illnesses may also come from lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury or sulfates, all of which are commonly concentrated in coal combustion waste.

Whatever the poison, it soon became clear that the water was tainted. Those who were sick sued the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which operates the plant; the company never admitted fault, but ultimately settled with the affected families. It also tightened up its waste disposal, becoming one of the first power plants in the nation to go to a zero discharge permit, which means it can't release any water onto the land. After a lot of legal wrangling, Hunt settled, too.

But the sheep butcher never settled down. He got mad, instead, and enlisted attorneys, a hydrologist and a handful of environmentalists to join his fight, which has spread outward from the one plant near his house, to the ways in which industry disposes of coal combustion wastes in general. And when he wants to show people another example of a giant disposal pit, he needn't travel far - there's one right across the river.

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