Navajo's Energy Facility, 'Desert Rock', In Jeopardy
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a motion Monday with its Environmental Appeals Board for a voluntary remand of the air permit issued last July for the Desert Rock Energy Facility.
In January, EPA withdrew a portion of the permit decision regarding emission limits and controls for emissions of carbon dioxide to seek further comment on the matter. Monday’s action addresses other issues still under appeal with the board, which will consider the motion filed Monday and issue an order to grant or deny it. If granted, the permit will be sent back to EPA’s Pacific Southwest office for further analysis.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said he was disappointed to learn of the EPA’s decision after it was made, and doesn’t consider that true consultation with the Navajo Nation or the change he had hoped for from the Obama Administration.
“I’m just hurt in many ways as leader of this big nation,” President Shirley told U.S. EPA Region 9 Acting Regional Administrator Laura Yoshi in a teleconference Monday. “We’re just not getting the cooperation we’re needing to move this project along.”
Shirley has requested a meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the Navajo Nation’s need for the Desert Rock project but said Monday’s decision has made that request more urgent. “Because of today's action, I am asking for a meeting with President Obama sooner rather than later,” he said.
Obama indicated his White House policy would create a new relationship with Native people that is based on dignity and respect.
“Fair and equal treatment on our Desert Rock project is the place to start,” Shirley said. “This isn’t just about energy. This is about sovereignty. This is about saving self. This is about the Navajo Nation regaining its independence by developing the financial wherewithal to take care of its own problems.”
The President said a project like Desert Rock, which will bring more than $50 million annually to the Nation, is the Navajo Nation’s best hope to break the cycle of dependency on the federal government.
Steven Begay, general manager of Dine Power Authority, co-developer of the 1,500 megawatt coal-fired plant along with Sithe Global Power of Houston, said EPA is “trying to change the rules in the middle of the stream and they're forgetting to help us with our health, welfare and economy. The rules are more important than maybe the lives of people out here and the progress of our Nation and our society.”
The Nation is losing revenue with every delay the federal government makes, Begay said. “Even though their concerns may be important, it's holding up the whole tribal economy. There should be some way to move forward under the existing rules without getting caught up in the midst of proposed stuff.
“We worked under the existing rules, and the existing rules aren't working for us right now. There has got to be some fairness to it, to help projects like ours and to bring in revenue and jobs so that we can take care of some of the social ills.”
Nathan Plagens of Desert Rock Energy Co., a Sithe subsidiary, said the official word from Desert Rock is “no comment.”
The federal agency is seeking to ensure that environmental considerations surrounding the proposal to build the Desert Rock power plant are consistent with the law and protective of human health and the environment, according to a statement from EPA headquarters in Washington.
“EPA is asking the board to remand the permit for this facility, thereby allowing the agency to reconsider clean-air technology controls for pollutants such as particulate matter. If the board grants the agency's request, the permit will be sent back to the EPA's Pacific Southwest office for further analysis and public comment.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson applauded the move. “I am encouraged by this decision – it’s a significant victory in our ongoing fight to protect the quality of our air. We still have work to do to make sure that this project only moves forward with the proper environmental safeguards. I am pleased the Obama Administration is taking action to reverse the disastrous environmental policies of the Bush Administration.”
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry said air emissions from Desert Rock would have singlehandedly undone the state’s climate change initiatives. “We stand ready to assist EPA Region 9 and the Navajo Nation to make significant improvements to the design of this facility, including technologies that will address greenhouse gas emissions.”
Jeff Holmstead, former assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation under the Bush Administration and now head of the Environmental Strategies Group at Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents Sithe, said EPA's motion came as a complete surprise.
“I've worked on environmental issues for over 20 years, and I've never seen anything like it. I don't think anyone ever imagined that the new team at EPA would seem to have such little regard for due process or basic notions of fairness. Everyone understands that a new administration has discretion to change rules and policies prospectively. But I've never seen any administration try to change policies and rules retroactively,” he said.
State Requests Meeting On Desert Rock Impacts To Fish
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – New Mexico Environment Department has requested a meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the impacts of emissions from the proposed Desert Rock power plant on threatened and endangered species.
NMED Secretary Ron Curry sent a letter March 30 to the service’s New Mexico Ecological Services Field Office Supervisor Wally Murphy requesting a meeting to discuss the biological assessment for the plant.
“The assessment indicates thirteen chemicals of potential concern, including high levels of mercury and selenium, will be emitted from the proposed Desert Rock facility and will impact the San Juan River and the Rio Grande,” Curry stated in the letter.
“New Mexico already suffers from the highest emissions of mercury in the nation and San Juan County has the highest mercury emissions in the state. We must do everything possible to protect our rivers, streams, fish and wildlife from impacts from the proposed facility.”
The assessment, prepared for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Area Office, and the service by contractor Ecosphere Environmental Services, also indicates these pollutants potentially could jeopardize the Colorado Pikeminnow and Razorback Sucker.
George Hardeen, communications director for the Navajo Nation Office of the President/Vice President, blasted Curry for his lack of consultation with Navajo.
“It's farcical that just weeks after Governor Richardson signed the New Mexico State-Tribal Consultation Act that Secretary Curry still ignores the Navajo Nation regarding the most important project it has ever undertaken.
“His insistence to issue press statements and consult with others except for the Navajo Nation about Desert Rock now disrespects the New Mexico Legislature, Governor Richardson, to say nothing of the Navajo Nation Council and the Navajo Nation president. But it says a lot about the New Mexico Environment Department's utter failure to complete the tribal
consultation it began with the Navajo Nation regarding Desert Rock.
“To paraphrase Samuel Mayer, Secretary Curry's handshake is not worth the paper it's printed on,” Hardeen said.
Copies of Ecosphere's December 2008 assessment can be obtained from the burea or the service. The San Juan River is considered one of the best trout fishing streams in the country but like most streams and lakes in the region, it is under mercury advisories for fish consumption.
Mercury emissions from power plants in San Juan County already cause adverse effects in the region and Desert Rock will only make worse the risk to public health, endangered and non-endangered aquatic species, according to the state.
“The Navajo people didn't put mercury into the San Juan River. The Navajo people didn't harm the fish. The Navajo people didn't create global warming or change the climate around the world. But the Navajo people are being held responsible for all that by the state Environment Department that has allowed the river to become so polluted on Secretary Curry's watch,” Hardeen said.
Mercury is a toxic pollutant that can cause death, reduced reproduction, impaired growth, and behavioral abnormalities in fish at relatively low levels. Wildlife and birds feeding on mercury contaminated fish also suffer adverse affects. In humans, methylmercury can cause brain and kidney damage.
The Endangered Species Act requires that the service has an opportunity to review and make recommendations on a biological assessment prior to a permit being issued. The previous administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to complete that process before issuing the Desert Rock air quality permit.
The U.S. Environmental Appeals Board is in the process of reviewing the Desert Rock permit. The board will decide whether to approve or remand the permit to EPA Region 9.
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