BIA criticized for handling of Navajo power plant 8-07

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) - The Bureau of Indian Affairs has issued a last call for comments on a draft environmental impact statement for a controversial coal-fired power plant planned for a remote area of the nation’s largest Indian reservation.

News that the agency would not be extending the 60-day comment period past Monday’s deadline sparked criticism Thursday from environmentalists, some members of the Navajo Nation and even a U.S. congressman.

“It’s a blow to the communities,” said Rick Palacio, deputy communications director for Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who had requested a formal extension of the comment period. “The congressman feels there should have been adequate time for additional scrutiny of air and water quality issues.”

The proposed $3 billion Desert Rock Energy Project, a joint venture between Houston-based Sithe Global Power and the Navajo Nation’s Dine Power Authority, would be the third coal-fired plant in the Four Corners region – where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet.

Even though the plant would be on Navajo land in New Mexico, Palacio said the project could have an impact on the entire region’s air and water.

“Just because there’s a border dividing New Mexico and Colorado, that’s really meaningless when it comes down to it,” he said.

Palacio said Salazar hopes to meet with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne about the possibility of getting an extension or at least an explanation for the BIA’s decision.

The 1,500-megawatt plant would be capable of producing electricity for up to 1.5 million homes in cities across the Southwest, where the population continues to swell and the need for electricity multiples.

Navajo leaders and Sithe have said Desert Rock would be one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the country and a much-needed source of jobs and tax revenue for the tribe. But critics argue it would harm the environment and residents’ health.

During a series of public hearings last month, many people stood before BIA officials asking for more time to comment on the EIS. Salazar, among others, sent formal requests to the agency.

In a statement released Thursday, the BIA regional office in Gallup, N.M., confirmed that the last day for public comments would be Monday. The agency did not comment further.

“Merely providing 60 days for the public to review a two-volume, 1,600-page technical document is absurd,” said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, one of the groups opposed to the power plant.

But Sithe spokesman Frank Maisano noted that by the time the comment period closes Monday, the public will have had more than three months to review the draft EIS, which was first made available online in May. He added that the BIA held 10 public hearings on the matter.

“There have been plenty of opportunities for them to say what they want to say,” he said of the critics.

Eisenfeld accused the BIA of failing to meet its
responsibilities as the lead agency to keep people informed about
public hearings and whether the comment period would be extended.

San Juan Citizens Alliance and a Navajo group, Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, also complained that the agency failed to translate the EIS into the Navajo language and did not provide printed copies.

Computer disks were handed out, but critics have said the pieces of plastic were useless.

Many residents of the communities close to the Desert Rock site speak only Navajo and many live without electricity, computers and Internet access.

Eisenfeld’s group will finish its comments by Monday’s deadline but he said Desert Rock opponents plan to pursue environmental justice claims and civil rights violations against the BIA for its handling of the plant.

“It will all end up in court,” he said.

On the Net:
Desert Rock Blog:
San Juan Citizens Alliance:
Desert Rock Energy Project:
Sithe Global’s Desert Rock Web site: