Air Permit for Coal Power Plant on Navajo Land Sent Back to EPA
SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 25, 2009 (ENS) - The contested air permit for the Sithe Global Desert Rock coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico today was sent back to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for additional analysis.

The EPA's Environmental Appeals Board remanded the air permit back to the agency due to deficiencies in the permit's environmental and technological analyses.

"We firmly believe that the EPA has accepted and acknowledged their responsibilities to evaluate Desert Rock under the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act," said Janette Brimmer with Earthjustice in Seattle, a nonprofit environmental law firm representing several groups that contested the permit, including Dine' Care and the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Site of the proposed Desert Rock Energy Project (Photo courtesy Sithe Global)

The Desert Rock Energy Project is a proposed 1,500 megawatt mine mouth coal-fired electric power plant located 25 miles southwest of Farmington, New Mexico in San Juan County.

The appellant groups claimed inadequate analysis of Desert Rock's emissions of particulate matter, mercury, ozone precursor, and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and failure to consult with wildlife agencies regarding potential impacts on endangered species.

If built, the environmentalists warn that the coal plant would be the nation's sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

"Desert Rock would add another 12.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year and raise ozone levels in the area that are already at or near national ambient air quality standard limits," the groups maintain.

"We are especially pleased that EPA will correct the hasty and inadequate review of impacts to endangered species." Brimmer said. "Given this remand, we now have a chance to ensure that EPA fully complies with all legal requirements and properly applies good science in order to fully protect the air and all the residents of this beautiful region of the county."

Despite objections from other federal agencies, the states of Colorado and New Mexico, local governments, Navajo tribal members and citizen groups, EPA Region 9 last year issued an air quality permit for construction of the Desert Rock Energy Facility.

The appeal was filed in August 2008 with the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, DC.

The EPA Region 9 office in San Francisco is the permitting authority because the proposed power plant would be sited on tribal land and the Navajo Nation lacks an approved tribal Prevention of Significant Deterioration, or PSD, permitting program. PSD permits are for construction projects that may significantly increase air pollution emissions.

In a rare move, EPA Region 9 requested that the Environmental Appeals Board voluntarily remand the permit, before the Board had fully reviewed the appeal.

The Environmental Appeals Board today granted that request. In addition, the EAB remanded the permit on the grounds that the best available control technology standard had not been applied before EPA Region 9 granted the air permit.

"The Region abused its discretion in declining to consider integrated gasification combined cycle as a potential control technology" even though the applicant, Sithe Global, had suggested this technology be used to control air emissions, the Board ruled.

Sithe Global claims that Desert Rock is "expected to have the lowest emissions rate of any coal-fired power plant in the US."

The estimated $4 billion investment will spur economic development for the Navajo Nation, the company says, pointing to the fact that the project was developed jointly with the Dine Power Authority.

But the Environmental Appeals Board rejected the arguments of the Dine Power Authority, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and Desert Rock that the appellant groups had asked for the remand "in bad faith" and also rejected their claims that EPA Region 9 denied Desert Rock equal protection under the law.

Today's decision to officially remand the permit brought praise from the appellant groups.

"We've been saying for a long time that the Desert Rock permit process was flawed from the start due to existing adverse environmental and human public health conditions," said Lori Goodman with Dine Care.

"This situation would be worsened by the addition of Desert Rock," said Goodman. "We are thankful that EPA has now stepped up to uphold the law and look out for the health of the people of the Four Corners Region, including the Navajo Nation."

"This is a coal plant that should never be built," said Mike Eisenfeld with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. "It's time for Sithe Global to consider some of their expertise in siting renewable energy in the region rather than continuing to bankroll the Desert Rock project that has insurmountable issues."

The permit's deficiencies were described to the EPA in more than 1,000 comments submitted by other federal agencies, state and local governments, tribal members and organizations, and other citizen groups.

Critics of the plant say its emissions would worsen respiratory disease. They warn that burning coal at the Desert Rock Energy Facility would add to the high levels of mercury in local rivers and lakes, many of which are already subject to fish consumption advisories. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune systems of people of all ages.

Sithe Global claims that, "Using the most effective technology available, the project will be able to control over 90 percent of NOx emissions, 98 percent of SO2 emissions, and 80 percent of the mercury emissions."

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.