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Under appeal in Desert Rock

SAN FRANCISCO – The Environmental Protection Agency issued an air permit July 31 that gives a green light to participants who have been in a holding pattern as the Navajo-backed Desert Rock power plant moves through a lengthy approval process, according to Diné Power Authority General Manager Steven C. Begay.

“People have been waiting to hear this,” Begay said, among them skilled-labor unions and utilities that can now plan to purchase power from Desert Rock.

“The mining permits will also move forward, and here [at the Navajo Nation] we’re working on our rights of way, and I think the proposal will receive a more positive response.”

Project developers Sithe Global Power of Houston and Diné Power Authority, an adjunct of the Navajo Nation, had filed a lawsuit against the EPA over the time-consuming air permit. The BIA must complete a favorable environmental impact statement before construction of the plant can begin, stated a release from the Navajo Office of the President and Vice President. The EIS is pending following closure of a public comment period in late 2007, after 10 regional hearings.

Opponents of the project, including the Navajo environmental organization Diné CARE, petitioned the EPA to withdraw the air permit and proceed with an air quality analysis they contend was curtailed in response to the lawsuit. The state of New Mexico, where Desert Rock will be located on Navajo land, also plans an appeal; and in Congress, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the coal-fired plant “reckless” in its alleged lack of global warming emission controls.

Proponents and the EPA point to pollution controls against haze and mercury, advanced air cooling technologies to reduce water use by 85 percent over conventional plants, and efficiencies that will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

“The Desert Rock plant will be one of the cleanest pulverized coal-burning plants in the country,” said EPA administrator Wayne Nastri in a statement issued by the agency.

“On top of the most stringent controls in the country, the Desert Rock Energy Facility has entered into an agreement with the Navajo Nation to further reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in the area by generating or purchasing sulfur dioxide credits [under a so-called “cap and trade” system for reducing greenhouse gases] and retiring them,” the agency release maintained. “Under the agreement, the company will also contribute additional funds toward environmental improvement projects that would reduce or prevent air pollution. These projects may include purchasing and retiring additional emission credits or allowances, or other studies that would provide a foundation for air quality improvement programs.”

A frequent theme of the Desert Rock development team, repeated July 31 by Desert Rock Energy Co. Executive Vice President Dirk Straussfeld, is that the plant’s stringent emission standards will establish a new performance level that the coal-fired power industry will have to match as America goes increasingly “green” with its energy consumption.

The Navajo Nation Council approved the project by a 66 – 7 vote in 2006.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said in a press release that the challenges of protecting the environment are many and will be met.

“Native people, Navajo people included, regard the earth as our mother, the sky as our father, and certainly we’re doing everything we can to take care of the air and the environment. At the same time, we know that the deities want us to stand on our own, and that’s where Desert Rock comes in.”

The $3 billion, 1,500-megawatt plant is expected to create thousands of jobs in a high-unemployment region, and bring more than $50 million annually to tribal coffers.