EPA board: Desert Rock needs more study

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 1, 2009

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The administrative appeals board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted the agency's request to withdraw its approval of an air quality permit for the proposed Desert Rock power plant, saying the agency needs to further assess the impact it would have on the environment.

The appeals board agreed with the EPA's request to reopen its review of the permit because its initial review failed to include the impact of the power plant on endangered species and to fully comply with the Clean Air Act.

The board also supported EPA's request to re-analyze the use of gasification technology by Desert Rock, which would reduce carbon dioxide, mercury, ozone precursors and other pollutants.

"Federal law requires the EPA to minimize emissions of hazardous pollutants before it can authorize construction of Desert Rock," New Mexico Attorney General Gary King noted in a Sept. 25 press release. "Acting under outdated policy, the EPA only looked at so-called coarse or large particulate matter in its original permitting decision."

The board stated in its decision that it rejected arguments by the Desert Rock Energy Co., Diné Power Authority, and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which included claims that the EPA motion was made in "bad faith, or at a minimum, is frivolous," and that EPA has violated its trust responsibilities, denied Desert Rock equal protection, and would violate due process principles.

In July 2008, the EPA granted an air permit for the plant, which would burn coal from the Navajo Mine and would generate 1,500 megawatts of electricity.

It would be the third large coal-fired power plant within a 50-mile radius of Farmington and Shiprock, and is opposed by national and local environmental groups on grounds it would add pollution to an area already overburdened with coal emissions.

The states of New Mexico and Colorado also objected to Desert Rock because it would emit carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming.

The opponents appealed the permit to the EPA's internal appeals board and in April the EPA itself, now under the Obama administration, told the appeals board it wanted to remand the permit for a closer look.

On Sept. 24, the appeals board issued its decision to return the air permit to the EPA in a 79-page ruling.

Desert Rock, the Navajo Nation, and DPA, a Navajo Nation enterprise, formally opposed the appeal of the permit, but on Tuesday a Desert Rock official said the board's action likely will not cause much delay.

"I want the Navajo people to know that the Sept. 25 decision by the Environmental Appeals Board to remand the Desert Rock Energy Project's air permit to Region 9 for reconsideration was not unexpected and certainly does not mean the project has been cancelled," said President Joe Shirley Jr.

Nathan Plagens, vice president of the Desert Rock Energy Co., said, "Desert Rock has been consulting with the EPA on the issues and feels comfortable that the record can be addressed within a reasonable time frame and sooner than the opposition supposes."

King, who applauded the appeals board ruling, predicted that EPA's decision to reopen the permit process would involve "extensive additional analysis, which could take many months - if not a year or more - to complete."

Plagens, however, remains optimistic.

"U.S. Fish and Wildlife will issue a biological opinion that will address the Endangered Species Act consultation before the end of the year and Desert Rock has submitted the MACT analysis earlier this year," he said.

"In addition, we further look forward to the BIA finalizing the EIS (environmental impact statement) by the end of this year," Plagens said, "Desert Rock remains optimistic that the project will start construction in 2010."

But Elouise Brown, president of Dooda Desert Rock, a group opposed to the project, believes the power plant will never be built.

"While we believe the power plant is dead, the debate continues," Brown said. "There are many issues to address, including the fact that ordinary Navajos would get no economic benefit from the plant because local infrastructure was ignored in planning.

"At minimum, we want the health issue addressed first, and in a way that satisfies us that the health of Navajos is being protected," she said.

Shirley on Wednesday issued a press release calling on the federal government to fund a pilot program aimed at eliminating carbon emissions from Desert Rock.

Putting aside the harsh criticism he and other Desert Rock backers had earlier made about the air permit appeal, Shirley said in the release that the application for federal funding "would not have been possible without first amending the Desert Rock air permit. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must still make the changes to the record that they posed to the EAB in order to reissue the permit, and having the permit remanded to the Region now makes this possible."

Desert Rock proponents have rebuffed calls to require the as-yet-unproven technology as a condition of allowing the plant to operate, saying that it likely won't work in the high-desert environment.

However, they say they welcome an experimental use of the technology. provided the federal government pays for it and does not require the plant to shut down if the experiment fails.

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