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The San Juan Power Plant Compromise

The San Juan Generating Station and Mine. Photo courtesy of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance and EcoFlight.By Erin Rose

By Erin Rose

— A tentative settlement may finally end PNM’s years-long battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over pollution from the San Juan Generating Station.

The power plant,  15 miles west of Farmington, N.M., is facing strict EPA emissions controls and the installation of pollution reduction measures. PNM and the New Mexico Environment Department challenged those emissions controls in court. An agreement was reached Friday, Feb. 15, with the promise that there would be no immediate rate hike for customers.

The plant emits thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides  per year. This pollution causes haze and discoloration of the sky at several nearby national parks. Such haze in wilderness areas is regulated by the 1999 Regional Haze Act.

The pollution at San Juan exceeds acceptable haze limits. Since New Mexico failed to submit a complete plan to reduce haze, the EPA stepped in and mandated the installation of selective catalytic reduction technology.

With the federal plan looming, the Environment Department and PNM instead proposed using selective non-catalytic reduction technology at San Juan. It’s less expensive—and less effective—than the system the EPA mandated, according to a state evaluation.

This cheaper system would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at the San Juan plant by 30 percent to 40 percent. The EPA-mandated tech would reduce San Juan’s emissions by at least double that, or 80 percent to 90 percent.

Due to this marked difference in emissions reduction, the EPA denied the utility’s proposal. PNM and NMED then sued.

 In March 2012, two judges on the 10th Circuit Court ruled that PNM must abide by the EPA guidelines. PNM appealed the decision. A compromise was reached last week: The plant will close two of its four coal-burning units and replace them with natural gas-fired generators. The cheaper technology suggested by the state will be installed on the two remaining coal units.

All of these measures must be in place by 2018, and the plan is still subject to final federal approval.

The Price Tag

New Mexico Environment Department and PNM contested the EPA’s plan because they said the cost to consumers would be too high. The cost of the EPA-mandated retrofit was estimated between $800 and $920 million.  According to the utility, installation would have cost each customer an additional $80 per year. Valerie Smith, a spokesperson, says, “PNM wants to be mindful of the cost to consumers in a state that has such high poverty levels.”

PNM has increased electricity rates for New Mexico ratepayers by 41 percent since 2008, adding $250 a year to the typical household’s bill. PNM used 79 percent of those rate hikes to increase its profits.

The compromise agreement will likely cost PNM—which owns a little less than half of the San Juan Generating Station—about $400 million.

The Environmental Cost

Mariel Nanasi is the executive director of New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe nonprofit that advocates for clean energy industry in New Mexico. She says larger concerns about environmental impact have been lost in the talks about cost. “New Mexicans have gotten benefit out of cheap electricity from PNM. But it’s also killing us, literally.”

The health cost over the past five years because of the power plants has been at least $250 million, she adds.

The plant produces more than 17,100 tons of nitrogen oxides per year. One of these compounds, nitrous oxide, reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere to form ozone. Ozone causes or aggravates a wide range of respiratory illnesses. The American Lung Association likens the effects of ozone on the human body to “a sunburn on your lungs.”

Lori Goodman is the treasurer for Diné Care, a Navajo organization dedicated to environmental protection. She says that PNM and the state’s Environment Department have ignored the health impacts of the plant. “They said this isn’t about health. It’s about visibility. It’s about haze. And we said we know. We see the haze. We live under the haze. We breathe in the haze every day. Our children are breathing in mercury.”

According to the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit that focuses on pollution reduction, San Juan annually contributes to 33 premature deaths, 600 asthma attacks and 31 asthma-related emergency room visits. The EPA estimates that stricter air quality standards will save the United States $2 trillion dollars in health care and other costs by 2020.

Mike Eisenfeld, the energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, points out that it’s not just air quality that suffers around San Juan. He says, “The power plants use most of the water from the San Juan River in a state that has frequent droughts, and that water is now full of mercury and selenium.”

Mercury is a known neurotoxin and can affect a person’s motor skills, hearing, muscle tissue and speech. Mercury exposure in the womb can cause brain damage and vision and hearing loss. It has also been linked to ADHD. Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest man-made source of mercury, according to a 2000 study.

The plant also produces hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, and a slew of other toxins.

A low haze day at Mesa Verde (left) vs. a high haze day (right)—Photos courtesy of the National Park Service

Goodman says these chemicals have affected the surrounding population. “One of the teachers at Ojo Amarillo, which is between the two power plants [San Juan and Four Corners] told me she sees a lot of developmental problems with the children there. The Shiprock hospital is full of people with respiratory problems.”

San Juan’s pollutants also affect at least 16 national parks. The Clean Air Task Force estimates San Juan is responsible for 80 percent of the pollution at Mesa Verde.

The ozone-laden haze has decreased the visual range from 140 miles to 35-90 miles in the West. The regional haze regulations seek to return visibility at national parks to natural levels.

Nanasi from New Energy Economy says the effects of the pollution aren’t just a local issue.

“We are changing the chemistry of the air we all breathe because of these power plants. Coal pollution has even affected the Arctic, thousands of miles away from the nearest plant.”


Check back with the Compass tomorrow for the second part of this series.

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