A proposal to extend the San Juan coal mine lease in northwestern New Mexico that fuels an adjacent power station would have minor impacts on air and water, according to a new and larger environmental study.
The San Juan Coal Co. seeks to reaffirm a lease extension through 2033 to mine 36 million tons of coal to power the San Juan Generating Station.
The U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed action in May and is accepting public comment until July 9.
Public meetings have been held on the report in Albuquerque and Farmington, New Mexico, as well as Wednesday in Towaoc. The next meetings will be at Shiprock High School on June 28 at 5 p.m., and the Durango Community Recreation Center on June 29 at 4 p.m.
The mining company initially won approval for the extended lease in 2008 and has been mining since. But in 2013, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the approved project, arguing that environmental reviews and opportunity for public input were insufficient.
In 2016, the Department of Interior accepted a “voluntary remand” from the courts and agreed to a more robust environmental review and public comment period. They agreed to complete the environmental impact study and have a decision by Aug. 31, 2018.
“The new analysis considers the indirect effects of the mining and also of the combustion of the coal,” said Marcello Calle, western program manager for the Office of Surface Mining.
Air quality studies using nine regional monitors showed current and estimated future emissions from the mine and power plant meeting U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards, said Gretchen Pinkham, project manager for the Office of Surface Mining.
“We did extensive air quality testing and modeling, and it shows the project is in compliance with federal standards,” she said.
Impacts on regional haze and visibility would be long-term, but minor, according to the study. Impacts to surface water quality are anticipated to be minor, but long-term.
In December, the San Juan Generating Station shut down two of its four power units as part of an agreement to comply with haze regulations under the Clean Air Act. The remaining two units were fitted with more advanced pollution control technology. The actions reduced emission by 50 percent, including for the nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulates that produce haze and smog.
The power station is owned by Public Service Co. of New Mexico and provides electricity for Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and California.
Last year, Public Service Co. announced it was considering shutting down the entire San Juan Generating Station by 2022 as part of a plan to focus its efforts on renewable energy.
The environmental impact study contemplates this scenario in Alternative B, which would allow San Juan Coal Co. to work the mine and sell the coal on the open market. If Alternative C were chosen, the mine and power plant would close in 2019.
If the mine and power plant shut down, it would hurt the local economy, according to socio-economic studies in the environmental impact study. It would result in the loss of $15 million in annual tax revenues in New Mexico and the Four Corners region, with San Juan County, bearing a third of the impact, losing $4.5 million in annual tax revenues.
The mine supports 290 jobs with an average annual salary of over $75,000 in an area where the median salary is $45,000. Before the shutdown of two units, the power plant employed 265 people.
Because of lower coal demand after the shutdown, mining slowed from 6 million tons of coal per year to 3 million tons, said Dan Mumm, and environmental engineer with San Juan Coal Co. The company has a contract to supply coal to the power station until 2022.
“Our staff recently dropped from 360 employees to 290,” he said. “This proposal is very important to us. There are enough coal reserves to continue mining past 2022.”
The underground mine uses a long-wall mining method that shears off coal from a 14-foot-high seam, then delivers it via a conveyor belt to the power plant. As the unit moves forward, the void is filled in behind it so the system does not require tunneling.
The Towaoc meeting was sparsely attended. Comment forms and copies of the study were available, and were in compliance with new Interior Department regulations to keep them to 150 pages or fewer.
Shelby Robinson, of Mancos, surveyed the information and said she was against the plan to continue a coal-fired power plant because relying on fossil fuels is not good for the planet.
“I feel like it is the opposite of what should be done – we should be subsidizing renewable energy and job training for solar and wind power,” she said.