Playing Dirty

Politics, Pollution And Power Heat Up Public Hearing On Desert Rock

Kate Trainor
5 min read
(Jeff Drew)
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Both Australia and Canada have resolved to ban incandescent bulbs in favor of energy-efficient compact fluorescents within the next decade. Meanwhile, environmentalists fear that New Mexico is about to re-enter the dark ages of dirty power.

More than 200 people attended a public hearing in Albuquerque last Thursday to discuss the proposed Desert Rock Energy Project, a coal-fired power plant slated for construction in northwestern New Mexico. Speakers at the hearing addressed the prospect of the plant and commented on the Environmental Impact Statement(EIS) prepared and published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs(BIA) this past May. The report outlines prospective impacts of the plant in three possible variations. The EIS will be a key factor in the BIA’s determination of whether or not construction of the plant can proceed, and ifSithe Global, the project’s corporate developer, will be allowed to lease Navajo land. The proposed site for the power plant is on the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region, about 30 miles south of Farmington. Many local Navajos traveled from their homes in the Northwestern corner of the state to attend the hearing.

Critics of the current EIS claim the document is cursory and describe it as “incomplete” and “inaccurate,” citing “shallow” and “biased” research. The document, they say, also fails to account for potential impacts on Navajo culture, community health and scarce natural resources, especially water.

“Coal-fired power plants use a horrendous amount of water to cool the condensers,” said John Hill, a New Mexico resident who spoke at the hearing. Hill and others expressed concern that the EIS fails to mention how and where it will obtain water for use at the plant.

“The EIS doesn’t cover health impacts or global warming impacts,” said Carol Oldham, regional representative for the Sierra Club. Oldham further described the EIS as “insufficient” and noted that the report fails to account for prospective carbon, mercury, sulfur and nitrous oxide emissions, in addition to other pollutants the plant would produce.

Jess Alfred, a resident of Tijeras, called attention to the existing coal power plants in the Four Corners area. Said Alfred, “Already, there are two huge coal-fired power plants causing more than enough pollution to choke every coyote from here to San Francisco.”

Numerous speakers, all long-time residents of northern New Mexico, reported witnessing an increase in air pollution and related illness in the region over the last 20 years. Tom Mark, a Navajo resident of the Four Corners area, recalled roadsides flourishing with plant life and mountains dusted with winter snow. Now, said Mark, the same land is barren desert, where winter snowfall is minimal.

Many of the Navajo in the region live without paved roads or power. Few have running water in their homes, and jobs in the area are as scarce a resource as these and other Western amenities. Sithe Global and Joe Shirley, Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, have partnered as the leading proponents of the Desert Rock plant. The project, they say, will bring these modern conveniences, along with massive “economic development,” to the Navajo community.

“We want nice jewelry, haircuts, air conditioning and everything that mainstream America has,” said Susie Baldwin, a Navajo woman, speaking in support of the plant.

Baldwin was the only Navajo at the hearing to speak in favor of Desert Rock. Other speakers noted that power generated by the prospective plant will supply cities in Arizona and Nevada, not New Mexico, and that Sithe is not required to hire local, Navajo people to build or maintain the plant.

Apart from Baldwin, the only other speakers to express support for the Desert Rock plant were tradesmen from local unions. Jerry Romero, a representative for the builders’ union, spoke on behalf of his colleagues. “We believe this is a clean plant,” he said. Carl Condit, a representative for the electrical worker’s union, echoed Romero’s sentiments and said the plant will provide “good-paying jobs.” Dissenting speakers, however, questioned who would benefit from such positions.

Laura Sanchez [not the
Alibi writer of the same name], an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the “benefits of the plant are offset by major liabilities.” According to the proposed Desert Rock contract, the Navajo Nation would be solely responsible for consequences and cleanup if the plant were to violate increasingly strict emissions laws. Presently, the plant does not meet emissions standards for the State of California, a forerunner in regulating industrial pollution. Sanchez also noted that, earlier the same day, Citibank had downgraded their investment in coal, indicating an international trend toward renewable, efficient energy.

Mark echoed the concerns of other Navajos regarding President Shirley. “I could see the dollar signs in his eyes,” he said, recalling a discussion he had with the president about the plant.

Amidst promises of economic development, Marlene Perot, a Sister of Mercy, pleaded that listeners question the plant’s purpose. “Is it for the common wealth, the common good?” she asked. “Who benefits?” Like Perot, many present at the hearing wondered which argument, for the environment or the economy, would endure.
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