Since it was first issued in 2008, the air-quality permit for the proposed Desert Rock Energy Project has left all but the project's supporters somewhat nonplussed by the science of the process that produced the permit. Accordingly, Desert Rock opponents objected to the permit, asking the Environmental Protection Agency to take a second look at a range of issues. The agency did that, and as a result has remanded the permit. It is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of thoroughness and objectivity in regulating projects that have an environmental cost.
When the EPA issued Desert Rock its air permit, project opponents filed objections to several areas of the document, including its handling of mercury and particulate emissions, and the project's effect on endangered species. These are crucial considerations that any agency tasked with regulating an inherently intrusive project must make. To hurry through that consideration process is unacceptable, and the conservation groups that called into question the EPA's process were right to make that claim.
For their part, Desert Rock proponents - both the project's developers and its host, the Navajo Nation - have made economic arguments as to why the power plant should be built quickly and without objection from surrounding communities. Citing the 1,500-megawatt coal-fired generation station as an important economic-development opportunity for the impoverished Navajo Nation, proponents claim that any opposition is an attempt to quash that development on its face. The issue, though, is far more complex in that air quality does not follow jurisdictional lines. As such, any review of such a project must consider its cumulative impacts - not just the dollar value it will bring to its host community.
The Desert Rock project would certainly not come online in a vacuum. If, as proposed, it is constructed 30 miles southwest of Farmington, it will join two existing coal-fired power plants in a county that is already the nation's sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. That is a relatively high ranking, given its population of less than 114,000 people. The carbon dioxide - and other harmful emissions including mercury - does not stop at county, state or tribal boundaries. Those substances have proved to drift high and wide, making their way into nearby communities and resources including rivers and lakes - and the fish that live in them - and irreplaceable natural and cultural assets such as Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
The public-health and environmental issues relevant to adding a large new coal-fired power plant are absolutely essential to consider with the best scientific practices available. In its initial review of Desert Rock's permit application, the EPA failed to meet that burden, instead choosing to expedite an approval under what appeared to some to be political pressure. That is hardly the business of a regulatory agency, and in remanding the permit, the EPA now seems to recognize the shortcomings it demonstrated under the Bush administration vis-à-vis Desert Rock.
Monday's decision sends the permit to the Environmental Appeals Board, an EPA panel that will rule whether to send the permit application back to the agency's regional office for a more thorough analysis than it initially received. That would be the right move for the agency's credibility as well as the region's environmental and public health.