New standards will impact local power plants

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Jan. 5, 2012

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Stringent new emissions standards announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month will eventually eliminate most of the mercury and other toxic emissions at the five aging power plants on or near the Navajo Nation.

But opponents of the new "MATS" - mercury and air toxin standards - say they will also dissipate jobs. Those include President Ben Shelly, who said Tuesday the new rules "will only make the good paying jobs on and near the Navajo Nation that much harder to find and maintain."

Together, the coal-burning power plants close enough to affect air quality on the Navajo Nation - Navajo, Cholla, Four Corners, San Juan and Escalante - have released 14.6 million pounds of mercury, chromium, lead, nickel and hydrochloric acid into the air in the last decade, according to the EPA's toxic release inventory.

All the substances have been proven to harm human health, and all would have to be reduced under the new rule.

Just how much they would have to be reduced will vary with the type of coal burned at each plant and the nature of the equipment.

Nationwide, the EPA hopes to eventually eliminate 91 percent of the mercury now in the air, and significant quantities of the other airborne toxins, according to its Web site.

The rule was announced Dec. 16 and will take effect 90 days after being read into the Congressional Record.

Federal air quality standards on power plants have been nearly two decades in the making. A 1993 study found that fossil-fuel-burning power plants were a major contributor to the country's air pollution, and in 2000 the EPA found it was "appropriate and necessary" to regulate them.

However, every time it tried to do so, it got sued by state and industry groups for allegedly doing too much, or by environmental and health lobbies for allegedly doing too little.

The EPA says on its Web site the new standards are attainable using existing technology. They will cost about $9.6 billion to implement, but will save the country an estimated $24 to $80 billion in health care costs and lost productivity due to premature deaths and mental retardation (which sometimes results when a pregnant woman is exposed to high levels of mercury).

Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition said she has yet to study the rule in detail, but any federal regulation of power plant emissions is good news for Navajos living on the reservation and breathing some of the most polluted air in the West.

"It's big news, because until now there hasn't been federal enforcement of these emissions," she said, noting that states and municipalities have failed to regulate them adequately because they are major consumers of the electricity the plants produce.

"We're very happy the EPA stood their ground on behalf of our children," Johns stated.

But, says Shelly, those children are going to have to work somewhere, and the five plants employ hundreds of Navajos close to home. If the plants start shutting down because they can't afford to upgrade their equipment, it's going to be bad news for Diné Bikéyah, he warned.

Fresh from slamming the EPA in the Santa Fe New Mexican for giving New Mexico's Regional Haze Plan the thumbs down, Shelly again assailed the agency for failing to consult with the tribes before publishing the 1,000-page MATS rule.

"We had hoped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have engaged in 'meaningful consultation' with the Navajo Nation as set forth in the 2009 memorandum by President Barrack Obama," Shelly wrote in an email to the Times.

Johns doesn't buy the job loss argument.

"Just think how many Navajos are going to be employed installing the new equipment," she said. "This rule is going to create jobs, not destroy them."

And if the plants do, in fact, have to shut down, something is going to have to go up to replace all that lost electricity, she argued.

"It opens the door wide for alternative energy," Johns said.

Shelly said that, because of the soil content, hazardous elements exist naturally in the Four Corners and the EPA should have considered that before setting the standards.

But Richard Grossman, a Durango obstetrician/gynecologist who recently studied mercury concentrations in the hair of Native Americans living in Shiprock, pointed to a 2005 study published in the journal "Applied Geochemistry" that traced nearly all the mercury detected in southwestern Colorado's Narraguinnep reservoir to the advent of nearby power plants - in spite of the fact that the surrounding bedrock also contains mercury.

Although Grossman's research actually found lower-than-average levels of mercury in the local Natives (probably because Navajos aren't big on fish), he's still a big fan of the new EPA rules.

"I think that the EPA change is very important and a bit late in coming," Grossman emailed to the Times. "About two-thirds of the mercury currently in the environment is anthropogenic (human-caused), and about 40 percent is from coal-fired power plants."

Shelly said that in any case, the Navajo Nation has a big stake in the rules and will need to be proactive in preparing for them.

"We plan to thoroughly review the standards and will proceed with a plan of action that will protect the public health, environment, and preserve existing jobs and the Navajo economy," he promised.

Under the new rules, power plants would have four years to comply.

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