Pollution From Coal Development Threatens New Mexico River
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Conservation and citizen groups Tuesday filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining for failing to conduct Endangered Species Act consultations prior to authorizing renewal of an operating permit for BHP Billiton's Navajo Coal Mine.
Two of the groups were party to another lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Denver, also against the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, for withholding records related to renewal of Peabody Energy Co.’s permit for the Kayenta Mine.
OSM was required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid impacts to threatened and endangered species from the mining of coal at Navajo Mine, its combustion at Four Corners Power Plant, and coal-combustion waste dumping, according to the Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, which filed the notice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and San Juan Citizens Alliance.
The groups’ lawsuit will be substantiated by newly obtained government records showing how mercury and selenium pollution from regional coal development is driving endangered fish in the San Juan River toward extinction, according to the law center.
A draft Fish and Wildlife biological opinion for the proposed Desert Rock Energy Project concludes that mercury and selenium pollution from regional coal combustion would be likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker – two endangered fish species in the San Juan River, a tributary to the Colorado.
Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance said the draft provides “solid evidence” that the San Juan River watershed and the continued viability of native species has been severely impaired because of coal and other energy development. “Recovery of this river and ecosystem is imperative. Downstream communities rely on San Juan River water, and the agencies must take action to reduce and eliminate the impacts from industrial pollution,” he said.
“At stake are two species of fish, millions of people’s drinking water, and one of the West’s loveliest rivers,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity.
In 2009 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its air-pollution permit for the Desert Rock Energy Project, citing the need for completion of Endangered Species Act consultations. The Oct. 15, 2009, draft biological opinion was prepared as part of that consultation, and its “jeopardy” determination is believed to have been a harsh blow to Desert Rock, which is now on hold, according to the law center.
Like the Four Corners plant, Desert Rock would burn coal from BHP's Navajo Coal Mine located south of Fruitland.
“OSM’s permitting decision does not evaluate the hydrological impacts of BHP’s nearly half-century of permanent disposal of over a half-billion tons of coal combustion waste at the mine and contribution to mercury cycling in the San Juan environment,” said Anna Frazier, executive director of Diné CARE.
“Water is life; water is sacred to the Navajo people living in the Four Corners area. Our survival has been dependent on the river for irrigation, for fishing, for watering animals, a place of prayer and offering. The legacy of coal development and waste disposal at the mine threatens our health, our plants and animals, and the very existence of the Diné,” Frazier said.
Brad Bartlett, an attorney with the law center, said OSM’s decision to renew operations at BHP’s Navajo Mine without consulting with Fish and Wildlife and addressing the findings of the Desert Rock biological opinion violates the Endangered Species Act. “With the ESA consultation demanded by today’s notice letter, BHP’s Navajo Coal Mine will be faced with the same facts that Desert Rock faced in consultation,” he said.
Citing EPA data, Bartlett stated that beginning in 1971, BHP began accepting approximately 1.9 million cubic yards of coal combustion waste from the Four Corners Power Plant annually for use as “minefill.” The waste consists of fly ash, scrubber sludge and bottom ash, which contain arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium. As of 2000, BHP had permanent disposed of 50 to 55 million tons of coal combustion waste in the mine.
The biological opinion does not consider the contribution of mercury from 40 years of disposal at the mine, Bartlett stated in the notice. By continuing to combust coal from Navajo Mine, the Four Corners plant will continue to emit 600 pounds of mercury annually into the San Juan River basin through 2020, when it is expected to increase 35.5 percent. Desert Rock would add approximately 0.1 percent, or 171 pounds per year.
The Colorado pikeminnow, the top predator in the Colorado River system, once grew as large as 6 feet in length, weighed nearly 100 pounds, and lived to be 45 to 55 years old. Today, it rarely exceeds 3 feet in length or weighs more than 18 pounds. During monitoring in 2007, out of 167 fish collected, only two were greater than 15 inches. One was 11 years old.
Major declines in their populations occurred after construction of a number of dams in the upper and lower Colorado River basins, including Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.
The razorback sucker was added to the endangered list in 1991. Adults often exceed 6 pounds in weight, 2 feet in length, and like the Colorado pikeminnow, may live more than 40 years. The San Juan River from the Hogback Diversion to Neskahai Canyon and Lake Powell are considered critical habitat.
“Their long-term viability remains uncertain because of the relatively limited or degraded habitat available to them between Navajo Dam and Lake Powell, competition and predation from non-native fishes, water quality issues, and the uncertainty
surrounding the changes that climate change will bring to the San Juan basin,” according to Fish and Wildlife.
The agency's opinion shows that 64 percent of Colorado pikeminnow in the San Juan River currently exceed mercury contamination thresholds for reproductive impairment; it predicts that number will rise to 72 percent by 2020 with additional pollution. The document also predicts that selenium pollution from agricultural discharges and ongoing coal combustion would cause 71 percent of those fishes’ offspring to be deformed in a way that harms growth, reproduction or survival.
Similarly, the opinion predicts that 85 percent of razorback sucker offspring would be deformed by selenium pollution and notes 40 percent of razorback suckers in the San Juan River already meet contamination thresholds for those deformities.
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