Following a legal battle launched by citizens groups, the long-contested air permit for the controversial Sithe Global Desert Rock coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Reservation was sent back to the Environmental Protection Agency today for additional analysis.
The reason: confirmed deficiencies in the permit's environmental and technological analyses.
"We firmly believe that the EPA has accepted and acknowledged their responsibilities to evaluate Desert Rock under the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act," said Janette Brimmer with Earthjustice in Seattle, attorneys for several groups including Dine' CARE and San Juan Citizens Alliance. "We are especially pleased that EPA will correct the hasty and inadequate review of impacts to endangered species. Given this remand, we now have a chance to ensure that EPA fully complies with all legal requirements and properly applies good science in order to fully protect the air and all the residents of this beautiful region of the county."
Despite objections from other federal agencies, the states of Colorado and New Mexico, local governments, Navajo tribal members and citizen groups, the EPA last year issued an air quality permit for construction of the Desert Rock Energy Facility, an additional massive coal-fired power plant on Navajo land in northwest New Mexico.
The appeal was filed in August of 2008 with the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) in Washington, D.C.
In a rare move, the EPA's Region 9 office in San Francisco requested in April of this year that the EAB voluntarily remand the permit, before the Board had fully reviewed the appeal.
In its motion, Region 9 stated, "Given the number of the issues in the appeal that Region 9 seeks to reconsider and the prior withdrawal of a portion of the permitting record by Region 9, a complete remand of the Final PSD Permit and administrative record will promote efficiency in the Agency's decision-making and potentially enable Region 9 to resolve several disputed issues."
Among the issues are inadequate analysis of Desert Rock's particulate matter, mercury, ozone precursor, and carbon dioxide emissions, and failure to consult with wildlife agencies regarding potential impacts on endangered species.
Today's decision to officially remand the permit brought praise from the appellants.
"We've been saying for a long time that the Desert Rock permit process was flawed from the start due to existing adverse environmental and human public health conditions," said Lori Goodman with Diné CARE. "This situation would be worsened by the addition of Desert Rock. We are thankful that EPA has now stepped up to uphold the law and look out for the health of the people of the Four Corners Region, including the Navajo Nation."
"This is a coal plant that should never be built," said Mike Eisenfeld with SJCA. "It's time for Sithe Global to consider some of their expertise in siting renewable energy in the region rather than continuing to bankroll the Desert Rock project that has insurmountable issues."
The permit's numerous deficiencies — including the failure to assess and set required emissions limits for carbon dioxide, mercury, and ozone-forming pollutants — were made clear to the EPA in more than 1,000 comments submitted by other federal agencies, state and local governments, tribal members and organizations, and other citizen groups.
The coal plant, slated to be built in San Juan County New Mexico, is the nation's sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Desert Rock would add another 12.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year and raise ozone levels in the area that are already at or near national ambient air quality standard limits.
Ozone triggers respiratory disease, hitting children, the elderly and people with existing health problems such as asthma especially hard. Nearly 15 percent of children in northwest New Mexico have asthma, a figure that doesn't include federal Indian Health Service records.
Burning coal at the Desert Rock Energy Facility will add to the high levels of mercury in local rivers and lakes, many of which are already subject to fish-consumption advisories. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune systems of people of all ages.
Read the remand (PDF)