Environment: Can a lawsuit shut down one of the West’s biggest and dirtiest coal-burning power plants?

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So much coal, so much pollution!

Legal challenge seeks to hasten the end of the fossil fuel era in the Southwest

Staff Report

A coalition of environmental and community groups is challenging the federal government’s decision to extend operations at the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant for another 25 years. In a new lawsuit, the activists say the approval lacked an assessment of clean energy alternatives.

Specifically, the legal challenge says the federal government’s claim that the power plant won’t harm endangered species violates the Endangered Species Act, and that the final decision violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

In a formal notice of their intent to sue, filed late last year, the groups said Office of Surface Mining, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies failed to look at clean energy alternatives and didn’t adequately consider the carbon pollution, health and other environmental impacts when they approved operation of the plant last summer. The notice also says the environmental studies didn’t look at water contamination from coal ash waste, and impacts to Navajo culture.

The Four Corners Power Plant is already on the hook for a $!60 million cleanup plan under a court settlement that acknowledges that the giant coal-burning plant violated the Clean Air Act by illegally modifying equipment without obtaining required permits or installing and operating the best available air pollution control technology. EPA experts said the clean will reduce harmful emissions by about 5,540 tons per year.

In a press release, the coalition said the issue should be seen in the context of the global shift away from coal to a renewable energy economy, as well as recent bankruptcy declarations by a number of big coal companies.

“Four Corners region coal has enabled far-off places like Phoenix and Southern California to thrive, so now that coal is on a permanent decline we deserve real attention to how our region can diversify going forward,” said Mike Eisenfeld with San Juan Citizens Alliance in Farmington, N.M. “Given the energy landscape today, it’s a serious disservice for government leaders to just tell the Four Corners to stick with collapsing coal without even a look at alternatives,” Eisenfeld said.

“The Four Corners mine-to-mouth coal complex represents a prime example of an energy operation that cannot operate without harming the surrounding people and environment,” said Shiloh Hernandez, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “That the U.S. Department of the Interior has largely swept these dangers aside is a health and environmental injustice, and its deafening silence on transition options is an economic injustice.”

“Our Navajo Nation president recently declared ‘We can’t depend on our coal, oil and gas revenues anymore,’ ” said Carol Davis of Diné CARE. “The rapid decline of global coal economics necessitates a hard look at solution-oriented growth for the Navajo Nation and Navajo communities, with reparations for over 50 years of undervalued resource flow off our lands. Approving 25 more years of coal mining and burning at the Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant blindly assumes profitable operations when in reality they are suspect at best, and places the Navajo Nation at great economic risk with the cost of owning and operating Navajo Mine with full responsibility for eventual reclamation.”

Attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Barth Law Office are representing Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Amigos Bravos and the Sierra Club in this case.

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3 thoughts on “Environment: Can a lawsuit shut down one of the West’s biggest and dirtiest coal-burning power plants?

    1. Not exactly. There are Navajo who oppose continued operation of the plant, and there would be plenty of time for a transition to some other forms of renewable energy generation. Nobody is saying shut down Four Corners from one day to the next. Hard to make the argument that the Navajo Nation is best served in the long term by continuing to rely on fossil fuels, IMO.

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