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$168 Million Settlement Between Navajo Coal Plant and Environmental Protection Agency

Navajo Nation coal power plant settles with Environmental Protection Agency for $168 million over alleged Clean Air Act violations.
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The Environmental Protection Agency has announced a $168 million settlement to help remedy pollution from a coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Nation.

The settlement requires owners of the Four Corners Power Plant near Shiprock, New Mexico, to pay an estimated $160 million in upgrades to the plant’s sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution controls. The settlement also sets aside $6.7 million for health and environmental mitigation projects for tribal members and levies a $1.5 million civil penalty. The Four Corners Power Plant settlement is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. 

The Navajo grassroots group Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (Diné CARE) has been pushing for resolution along with other citizen groups, and is a party to the settlement. Lori Goodman, a Diné CARE board member, said health concerns have been a primary driver for her group’s longstanding work on the issue.

“It was a hard fight to keep the community impacts in there,” she said. “That part of the settlement has been reduced quite a bit, but I guess that’s the best that can happen.”

Goodman said some neighbors of the plant suffer from severe asthma, along with other health problems, while lacking access to adequate health care. Work by Diné CARE and other groups starting in the early 1990s led to a June 2011 lawsuit by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, on behalf of Dine’ CARE, To’ Nizhoni Ani, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association. The suit claimed that Four Corners had not obtained permits for major modifications made to the power plant during 1985 and 1986.

When Earthjustice filed the complaint, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency expressed concerns to the federal agencies that any monetary penalties assessed to the power plant by the U.S. would exclude any benefits to the tribe, according to a statement by Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. But that did not turn out to be the case. The $6.7 million will fund tribal mitigation projects including a coal-burning stove replacement program, home weatherization and a health trust fund for medical treatment including physician visits, equipment and medication for people affected with upper respiratory disease.

“We appreciate that the health of the Navajo people was considered,” said Begaye, who won office in April. “While $6.7 million will provide many needed improvements for the Navajo people affected by the power plant emissions, we still have much more that needs to be addressed. We applaud the tenacity and dedication of the grassroots organizations that remained united throughout this process and never gave up, for the health and wellbeing of their people.”

RELATED: Russell Begaye Wins Navajo Election: Time to Unite and Move Forward

Arizona Public Service Company (APS) is the operator and primary owner of the Four Corners plant. Current and former co-owners of the plant include El Paso Electric Company, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, the Tucson Electric Power Company and Southern California Edison.

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Ann Becker, vice president of Environmental and chief sustainability officer at APS, denied any wrongdoing at Four Corners.

“We strongly dispute these allegations,” she said. “APS has a lengthy and strong history of environmental stewardship and compliance. But we believe the settlement is in the best interest of the plant, our employees, the Navajo Nation and the surrounding communities.”

Becker said the settlement doesn’t change much with respect to operations at the plant. It requires selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology to control nitrous oxide emissions, but that was already required under the EPA’s regional haze rule, she said.

“The emission limit that we have to meet is slightly more stringent,” she said. “We have some additional controls for sulfur dioxide. The projects that we have committed to on the Navajo Nation are new as well.”

She also downplayed the significance of the settlement by pointing out that APS is among nearly 30 electric utilities to settle under the EPA’s nation-wide enforcement efforts since the year 2000.

“There’s nothing particularly special about this settlement or the power plant,” she said.

But in a statement released on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, with the U.S. Department of Justice, called the settlement a “significant achievement for air quality and the health of the people of the Navajo Nation and the surrounding region.” The EPA points out that the additional upgrades mandated by the settlement will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by approximately 4,653 tons per year and nitrous oxide emissions by approximately 887 tons per year beyond what has been required by previous rules, including the EPA’s Regional Haze limits.

Diné CARE’s Goodman said the settlement has been a long time coming.

“We’re happy for the people in the community who will finally have redress, as far as their health being impacted,” she said.

APS recently renewed the lease for the Four Corners Power Plant; under the terms, the plant can continue to operate on the Navajo Nation until 2041. Together, the plant and the Navajo Mine that supplies its coal employ 735 workers.