Some residents and environmental interests surrounding a New Mexico power plant and companion coal mine are devastated that federal officials extended operations.
The news surrounding the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine comes as a blow to opponents of the operation, especially as other coal mines across the nation are under scrutiny by President Barack Obama’s administration, including the Colowyo Mine near Craig, which is facing a new environmental review to stay open.
Critics of coal mines assumed tough standards meant the administration was trying to phase out development. But Four Corners operations have so far been spared, despite a federal judge in April ordering federal officials to more thoroughly consider the environmental impact to a proposed expansion of the Navajo Mine. Farmington-based Navajo Transitional Energy Co. on the Navajo Nation applied to expand mining operations by about 12.7 million tons of coal. The Navajo Mine exists for the sole purpose of feeding the Four Corners Power Plant.
The Interior Department on Friday announced that after an environmental analysis, it would approve a 25-year lease extension with the Navajo Nation for the Four Corners Power Plant. It could produce as much as $60 million annually in direct revenue to the Navajo Nation.
Federal officials defended their decision, pointing out that they approved the smallest area proposed, while minimizing impacts to water and air and including wildlife and cultural protections. Operators also previously shut down three of five units, and agreed to install safeguards on the remaining two units.
“(Friday’s) decision includes a robust suite of mitigation measures designed to reduce the potential environmental impacts of the project to the greatest extent possible, while still supporting earlier pollution-reduction measures and promoting tribal self-determination and economic development,” Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor said in a statement.
For those who have been fighting operations for years, the Interior Department’s reasoning does not come with any comfort. Critics of the power plant and mine have alleged health issues, including severe cases of asthma.
“That was pretty devastating,” Lori Goodman, a Durango board member with Diné CARE, which represents residents near the power plant and mine, said of the Interior Department’s decision. “In light of all the health impacts happening, to just totally ignore that and to say there’s no impacts, it’s really ridiculous.”
Attorneys with the Durango-based Western Environmental Law Center, who challenged the earlier expansion proposal for the Navajo Mine, are now considering whether to challenge the Interior Department’s latest decision extending operations. That would mean two simultaneous cases as the April ruling is being appealed.
“Our clients are disappointed with the Interior Department’s decision to allow this expansion, it seems to be clearly inconsistent with the Obama administration’s climate policy,” said Shiloh Hernandez, an attorney who is challenging the expansion. “Our initial take is that we are not impressed. They do a good job of overlooking and minimizing a lot of environmental impacts.”
But Erny Zah, spokesman for the power plant and mine, said the decision by federal regulators to extend the lease falls in line with the administration’s mission because operators have gone out of their way to comply with rules and regulations.
“Our operations are in sync with federal regulations that are mandated to operate a coal mine,” Zah said. “They are some of the strictest regulations regarding any type of mining that exists in the United States.”