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for people who care about the West

Coal’s other mess

As the air around power plants clears, another problem worsens


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.

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.