by the Center for Biological Diversity
Navajo Mine, by Kelly Michals
After decades of coal pollution from the 2040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant and BHP Billiton’s 13,000-acre Navajo Coal Mine that supplies it, Navajo and conservation groups filed suit against the federal government late Tuesday for improperly rubber-stamping a proposal to expand strip-mining without full consideration of the damage and risks to health and the environment.
“The Navajo mine has torn up the land, polluted the air, and contaminated waters that families depend on,” said Anna Frazier of Diné CARE. “Residents in the area deserve a full and thorough impact analysis that is translated into the Navajo language to provide for real public participation, not another whitewash for the coal industry.”
Navajo Mine is located in San Juan County, N.M., on the Navajo Nation. Four Corners Power Plant, built in 1962, provides electricity to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and is the largest coal-fired power plant source of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the United States. (NOx is associated with public-health impacts including respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes). The legal action, brought under the National Environmental Policy Act, challenges the Office of Surface Mining’s decision to allow BHP Billiton to expand strip-mining operations into 714 acres of a portion of land designated “Area IV North” and the agency’s claim that the mine did not cause significant human health and environmental impacts.
The present Area IV mine expansion was proposed in the wake of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment v. Klein (Diné CARE), 747 F. Supp. 2d 1234, 1263-64 (D. Colo. 2010). In that case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that a previous proposal to strip-mine all 3,800 acres of Area IV North violated the National Environmental Policy Act and ordered OSM to revisit its analysis under the Act.
Unfortunately, OSM’s new analysis only exacerbates the deficiencies of its first analysis. OSM’s analysis justified a finding of no significant impact in a vacuum by focusing only on a cursory analysis of impacts within the mine expansion’s perimeter and ignoring indirect and cumulative impacts from mercury, selenium, ozone, and other air and water pollutants caused by the combustion of coal at the Four Corners Power Plant and the plant’s disposal of coal ash waste generated by the coal mined from the expansion area.
“The way the approval was rushed through and the way OSM put on blinders to the cumulative reality of coal operations at the mine and the power plant is an injustice,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “It hides the true magnitude of the damage going on with coal in our region and the risks of green-lighting more of the same with no change.”
“Mercury and selenium pollution from coal mining and combustion is driving endangered fish extinct in the San Juan River while it threatens people’s health in nearby communities,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These are massive environmental problems facing the Four Corners region and people — problems the Office of Surface Mining can’t ignore any longer. ”
“Pollution and other impacts from coal mining and coal power plants broadly impact New Mexico’s rivers and streams, in particular the Chaco and San Juan rivers,” said Rachel Conn, projects director at Amigos Bravos. “These rivers must be better protected for agriculture, drinking water and fish.”
“Ultimately, we need to transition away from coal and towards clean, renewable energy from New Mexico’s abundant sun and wind,” said Nellis Kennedy-Howard with the Sierra Club. “As we make that transition, we need to account for the true magnitude of coal’s impact to human health and the environment.”
“When the federal government gets out the rubber stamp in a situation like this, where so much is at stake for clean air, vital waterways, and the people who depend on them, that leaves no alternative but legal action to try to ensure fairness and accountability,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the groups.
The lawsuit seeks a comprehensive analysis of the Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant’s impacts to health and the environment to inform current and future coal-related decisions and help illuminate opportunities to transition away from coal toward clean, renewable energy generated by New Mexico’s abundant sun and wind.
Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (CARE), San Juan Citizens Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Amigos Bravos and the Sierra Club are represented in the case by the Western Environmental Law Center.
A copy of the filed lawsuit can be found here.