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Coal Power Plants and Mercury on the Navajo Nation

An article about coal burning power plants and the health issues caused by mercury on the Navajo Nation
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Navajo and other Native people who live beneath the massive grid that carries power from the Colorado Plateau to distant cities have long criticized its creation of bad water and polluted air, particularly because they may not have electricity or running water themselves.

Change is coming incrementally. The Environmental Protection Agency first restricted nitrous oxide emissions, including those from heavily polluting Four Corners Power Plant in the Navajo Nation, and now has issued tough new standards curbing power plants’ emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gas and other toxins.

Why the focus on power plants? They “represent America’s single biggest source of air pollution, affecting our waterways, destroying ecosystems, and polluting the air we breathe,” explains Environment America, a citizens advocacy federation. “Pollution from coal-fired power plants in particular contributes to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the United States.”

Three coal-fired power plants affect Navajo tribal lands, in particular, and local residents don’t doubt the harm they do.

“Teachers are telling us there’s a lot of developmental problems for the kids—that’s mercury,” said Lori Goodman, coordinator for Dine’ CARE (Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment), describing problems at the school nearest Four Corners Power Plant west of Farmington, N.M. “And the autism—that’s mercury-related.”

Even low-level mercury exposure may be irreversible, and, especially in children, lead to lower IQs and problems with paying attention, verbal skills, and motor control, while in utero exposure to higher levels of mercury has been linked to mental retardation, seizures, and blindness, according to experts.

The Navajo Nation’s lease on 2,040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, N.M. was recently extended to 2041 because of the $7 million annual economic value to the Nation and the jobs it provides to Navajo workers, who comprise most of the workforce at the plant and the mine that furnishes its coal.

But in the future, the plant will have to employ increasingly rigorous anti-pollution measures, the best available remediation technology, or BART, including those to reduce the mercury emissions which have reached 1,481 pounds annually, according to Environment America, making the plant a target of national criticism.

It will be none too soon for Goodman and others who have been stymied in their attempts to obtain the kind of hard data to which federal agencies will listen and as evidence of damage done.

Anecdotal information abounds, as in the account of one family living near the Four Corners plant that had two developmentally challenged children, then moved away and had two more who were completely normal. Another family has a similar story, and another.

“And yet it’s hard to get health information—we actually had filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request) for IHS records or reports, but they refused us,” she said.

At a recent BART hearing in Farmington, “They tried to say it is not about health but it’s all about health,” she said. “We got a Navajo nurse to talk about it, and that helped.” Public meetings may finally be a ticket to obtaining the health information Dine’ CARE needs, she added.

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“Navajo people have been affected disproportionately—and not just in terms of pollution,” she said. “We don’t get electricity from either Four Corners or Navajo Power Plant and they’re huge. Just four or five in the whole West are more than 2000 Megawatts.”

It’s not just a local problem, either, she said: “Even though Four Corners is about a hundred miles south of Silverton (Colorado), higher mercury levels are being recorded in the mountains and lakes—including Vallecito Reservoir and Navajo Lake,” she said of two popular fishing areas.

“In the San Juan River and Navajo Lake, they say, ‘catch and release,’ making it sound sporting, but it’s really because the fish is contaminated with mercury and they don’t want anyone to eat more than two a month,” she said.

A gram-sized drop of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake, in some instances threatening surface water used for drinking with mercury pollution, said Andy Bessler, of the Sierra Club, who said EPA did the right thing in that “mercury is a toxic killer that continues to pollute local communities downwind of power plants.”

The nearby 2,040 MW San Juan Generating Station emits about 560 pounds of mercury annually, adding to the pollution of the Four Corners Power Plant. It is regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department to meet EPA mandates because it is in the checkerboard area where private, state, and federal lands are interspersed at the eastern edge of the Navajo reservation.

To the west, 2,409 MW Navajo Generating Station, on Navajo tribal land near Page, Ariz. emits 273 pounds of mercury per year, contributing to fine particle pollution that is especially harmful to the health of the Navajo children and elderly, according to SourceWatch, of the Center for Media and Democracy.

Smog-producing NGS has come under fire from both Navajo and Hopi area residents because after decades of coal mining to supply it, “thousands of tribal homes near the mines, power plants and transmission lines are still without electricity and running water,” according to a joint statement of the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust.

In fact, NGS has threatened to close down under the weight of costly emissions controls, according to the Arizona Daily Sun, which quotes an NGS spokesman as saying the plant will operate a minimum of 6 years and perhaps longer, depending on the controls’ cost.

Environmental-compliance upgrades aren’t cheap; emissions controls on the San Juan Generating Station for nitrous oxides were estimated at between $750 and $1 billion. The good news is that those controls “that have already been installed remove some of the mercury before it is released from the stack,” according to the EPA.

Effectiveness of the control measures for other pollutants varies, however, and “In some cases a plant might consider changing the type of coal that it burns in order to get better mercury control from its existing control devices,” EPA said.

Newer controls specifically to reduce mercury emissions include activated carbon injection, in which particles of activated carbon are injected into the exit gas flow so that mercury attaches to the particles. They are then removed in a traditional particle control device, according to the agency.

Coal-fired power plants, while increasingly regulated for their pollution, may stay in the picture in Indian country where, for example, Northern Cheyenne lands in southeastern Montana host the Colstrip Steam Plant, Montana’s largest coal-fired plant.

In a sign of the times, Colstrip, too, installed air-pollution scrubbers at the tribe’s insistence.