Comment period begins on Navajo power plant 5-22-07

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The developers of a proposed coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico are gearing up for another round of public hearings, and so are the tribal members who oppose the project.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday released a draft environmental impact statement supportive of the Desert Rock Energy Project, a controversial power plant proposed by the tribe's Dine Power Authority and Houston-based Sithe Global Power.

Hearings on the lengthy impact statement will get under way June 18 in Shiprock and Window Rock, Ariz. Other meetings are planned for Farmington, Durango, Colo., and the Navajo communities of Sanostee, Burnham and Nenahnezad.

The draft EIS reviews three alternatives - the proposed 1,500-megawatt plant, a scaled down version and no plant at all - and the impacts each would have on the tribe and the region's environment.

According to the document, a smaller plant would disturb fewer acres but the BIA contends it would be less efficient and use more resources for each kilowatt of electricity produced. No plant would mean a loss of tax and royalty payments to the Navajo Nation.

“This impact would have great resonance in a disproportionately low-income Navajo community characterized by high unemployment and lack of economic opportunity,” the EIS states.

The tribe could see an estimated $43 million in taxes and royalties if the 1,500-megawatt plant is built, or $18 million if a smaller 550-megawatt plant is built, according to the EIS.

But money shouldn't be the deciding factor, say Navajos and environmentalists who are concerned that Desert Rock would be detrimental to the environment and the health of residents.

“It's going to kill our people. It's going to pollute our environment, our land,” said Elouise Brown, president of the Dooda Desert Rock, a group that has been fighting the proposed plant.

Brown said her group was looking closely at the draft EIS and plans to attend next month's public hearings.

Desert Rock officials also look forward to the hearings, said Sithe spokesman Frank Maisano.

“I think the Navajo Nation and the people who are going to benefit from this are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that light is economic success, jobs and real opportunities,” he said.

The draft EIS acknowledges that air quality would be impacted by Desert Rock, which would be the third coal-fired plant in the area. But because of plans to help reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at existing facilities in the region, the BIA says Desert Rock would not further degrade air quality.

Supporters say the plant would be outfitted with high-tech pollution control equipment and would be regulated by a strict air permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EIS also considers the effect on ground and surface water. A computer model shows that one registered well in the area would reach a drawdown level of 10 feet if the large plant were to be built, but the BIA claims that wouldn't constitute a significant impact.

The BIA also said impacts to surface water could be mitigated if runoff and erosion are controlled.

Maisano said Desert Rock officials would “certainly do whatever we can to be sensitive.”

Opponents have argued that water is scarce and that Desert Rock would only exacerbate the situation.

According to the EIS, Desert Rock would continue to refine its groundwater model with test wells.

The EIS also suggests that Desert Rock take action to protect the Mesa Verde cactus and avoid impacts on other species. Populations of the rare cactus were found along a proposed water pipeline corridor.

Desert Rock also would increase mercury and selenium deposits that could reach the San Juan River or Morgan Lake. But the BIA said the change in water quality would be nominal.

Culturally sensitive areas, such as Navajo burial sites, could be protected by the careful placement of wells and transmission lines, the EIS states.

Maisano said Desert Rock officials were reviewing the document and that it was possible the public hearings would lead to changes. He pointed out that meetings early in the process prompted developers to change from a water-cooled system to a dry one.

“We're always looking for good ideas from people who are willing to work with us,” he said.