Feds approve 25-year extension for mining, burning coal at Navajo plant

The federal government has approved a proposal that would allow the Four Corners Power Plant to continue operating for another 25 years, while expanding a nearby coal mine that feeds the plant, (Photo courtesy Tony Bennett/APS)

WASHINGTON – Federal officials Friday approved a multiyear deal to allow expanded mining of coal on Navajo lands and continued burning of it at the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, along with other measures.

Officials said the 67-page “record of decision” will ultimately support more than 2,300 jobs statewide and provide $40 million to $60 million every year in direct economic benefits to the Navajo Nation.

The deal extends the lease on the Four Corners Power Plant by 25 years, allows for an expansion of the Navajo Mine and preserves rights-of-way for roads and utilities on Navajo and Hopi lands.

It comes less than a month after operators of the Four Corners plant agreed to settle a lawsuit by federal officials and environmental groups that claimed plant emissions violated the Clean Air Act.

Under the consent decree that settled that suit, the plant’s operators agreed to spend up to $160 million on equipment to reduce harmful emissions from Four Corners, and to set aside millions more for health and environmental programs.

And, under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, the plant in late 2013 shut down the oldest and dirtiest three of the five generating units at Four Corners to help the facility meet Clean Air Act emission standards.

Federal officials cited the EPA action and others in announcing the latest decision, which they said takes into account the impact of the extension on air, water, wildlife and other factors.

Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor said in a atatement that the extension incorporates “a robust suite of mitigation measures designed to reduce the environmental impacts of the project to the greatest extent possible,” while respecting earlier environment agreements, economic considerations and tribal sovereignty.

While federal officials touted the benefits of the extension, not all residents of the area were convinced.

“Our Mother Earth is being ruined,” said Mary Lane, president of the Forgotten People, a grassroots Navajo organization.

“We don’t want the power plant to go on,” she said. “It’s ruining all the environment, the air, the water.”

But Eugenia Quintana, the director for air and toxins for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, noted the environmental progress at the plant in recent years and said continuing operations there is overall a plus.

“The closure of the … units has and, we think, will continue to significantly reduce” air pollution from the plant, Quintana said.

“The Four Corners contribute significantly to the overall revenue of the Navajo Nation,” she said. Continued economic benefits, combined with a decrease in environmental impacts make keeping the plant “a plus all the way around.”

The record of decision caps almost three years of studies and public hearings on the proposal. Besides Connor, the document was signed by officials from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and included input from five other agencies and the Hopi and Navajo tribes.

But Lane, who blames the tribe’s struggles in part on its treatment of the environment, called it just another example of government making more “decisions behind closed doors.”