Feds extend comment period on Navajo coal-fired power plant 8-07

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) - The federal government has decided to give people another 30 days to review a massive document on the potential impacts of a proposed coal-fired power plant that the nation’s largest Indian reservation is looking to as its economic salvation.

The $3 billion Desert Rock Energy Project would be capable of producing enough electricity for up to 1.5 million homes in cities across the Southwest while bringing in tens of millions of dollars each year in tax revenues, lease payments and royalties for the Navajo Nation.

The Department of Interior made the decision to extend the comment period Friday, a day after criticism erupted when the agency’s Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a last call for comments on the plant’s draft environmental impact statement.

Among the environmentalists and tribal members who had objected to the comment period ending Monday were Rep. John Salazar and his brother Sen. Ken Salazar, both Democrats from Colorado.

While the plant would be located on tribal land in northwestern New Mexico, the lawmakers say it’s controversial among residents throughout the Four Corners region – where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet.

The Salazars said many residents did not receive a copy of the 1,600-page environmental impact statement until the comment period was half over.

“The proposed Desert Rock plant is one that concerns many of my constituents,” John Salazar said in a statement Friday. “The possible impacts of the proposed plant to our air, water and health need to be fully understood. This extension will allow more time for the public to read and comment on this proposal.”

Desert Rock, 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.

Opponents are concerned that it would only add to the pollution in the region, impacting both residents’ health and the environment.

But 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 revenue for the tribe.

George Hardeen, a spokesman for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., said the extension of the comment period was a compromise since many people had requested 60 more days during a series of public hearing held by the BIA last month.

Hardeen said Desert Rock is important to the Navajo Nation, where unemployment is high and many people live without running water or electricity.

“President Shirley still sees this as the keystone to reviving the Navajo economy,” Hardeen said Friday.

One of the reasons Navajo leaders support the project is because of its stringent pollution controls, he said.

“Many people say we need to keep our CO2 levels as low as possible. Clearly, we hear this message but we continue to need the plant,” he said, referring to the revenues it would bring the tribe over the next 40 to 50 years.

“Opponents want no plant. Not lets make the cleanest plant possible, but no plant at all,” he said. “Nothing else would replace that as an economic generator.”

Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, one of the groups that has been fighting Desert Rock, said the Navajos needs to look beyond their coal resources to renewable energy production.

He said a study has been commissioned by the plant’s opponents to consider alternatives, and the longer comment period will allow for those findings to be submitted to the BIA.

“We’re not only saying no to Desert Rock. But look, there are some alternatives for the Navajo Nation – things that would perhaps allow the Navajo Nation to be a model for what can be done on tribal land and secure themselves a solid economic future,” he said.

Hardeen acknowledged the push for wind and solar generated power, but he said the amount of electricity those systems would be able to generate would be far less than Desert Rock, meaning less revenue for the tribe.

“The wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun shines only half of a 24-hour day,” he said. “The power plant will be producing energy and money every day.”

On the Net:
Desert Rock Blog: http://desert-rock-blog.com/
San Juan Citizens Alliance: http://www.sanjuancitizens.org/
Desert Rock Energy Project: http://www.desertrockenergy.com
Sithe Global’s Desert Rock Web site: http://www.desertrockenergyproject.com