New Mexico utility endangering public health with coal mine deal

San Juan Generating Station
Public Domain Wiki

By Tom Valtin of the Sierra Club

All across the country, the cost of coal is going up, while the price of clean energy is coming down. Coal is in decline, due in large part to the adverse public health impacts and climate consequences of mining and burning coal. Yet the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) announced in filed testimony on October 31 its interest in purchasing the San Juan coal mine in northwestern New Mexico. PNM faces a year-end deadline to decide whether or not it will purchase the mine, which feeds the adjacent San Juan Generating Station.

The Sierra Club and a coalition of New Mexico community groups and faith leaders are urging PNM -- the largest electricity provider in the state -- not to buy the San Juan mine and sink ratepayer money into prolonging the life of one of the region's biggest threats to clean air, clean water, and public health. The San Juan mine is the sole source of coal for the San Juan Generating Station, a 41-year-old coal plant that is the second-largest source of air pollution in New Mexico.

In a letter submitted to PNM
, the coalition highlighted the opportunity the utility has to tap into New Mexico's vast renewable energy potential, while also detailing the profound public health consequences of continuing to mine and burn coal at San Juan. More than 850 individual New Mexicans also sent letters to the utility's CEO and senior vice president of public policy opposing the mine's purchase.

"Why on earth would PNM buy a coal mine that would lock its ratepayers and the surrounding community into decades of coal pollution?" says Nellis Kennedy-Howard of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "PNM faces a critical choice; continue to threaten public health by mining and burning coal, or truly commit to investing in clean energy like wind and solar."

Taken together, the San Juan and nearby Four Corners coal plants are the largest point source of pollution in the Western Hemisphere. The Farmington/Shiprock area where the plants are located is also the largest methane hot spot in the country. Coal mining releases methane, which escapes from vents in underground mines.

PNM's decision also has environmental justice repercussions, as the vast majority of residents in the Four Corners area are Native Americans who have suffered a disproportionate burden of pollution from energy production. Lori Goodman, a Navajo who is interim coordinator of Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining the Environment), says that tribal people in the area have endured half a century of health problems as a result of coal, and it's time to transition to cleaner sources of energy.

"Tribal members tend to suffer the ill effects of coal all the more because the health care that's provided on tribal lands is dismal," she says. "Medical facilities are lacking, so it's a double-whammy if the Indian hospital doesn't have the funds or the medications you need. Plus a lot of people who need a machine to help them breathe don't have electricity. That's where tribal people really get hit. We might be providing all the energy, but we suffer the most."

Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan's Citizen Alliance has been working for years to clean up the San Juan Generating Station using the Clean Air Act as a tool. "We looked at all the plant's permits and told the EPA that the plant had to comply with the Clean Air Act's regional haze program. Basically, if facilities are going to continue operating, they have to reduce their pollutants. Haze from the San Juan and Four Corners plants has a significant impact on national parks in the region; Mesa Verde is just 30 miles to the north."

After years of back-and-forth, the EPA this fall approved a state plan that would close two of the coal-fired units at San Juan. However, under the plan, two units at the plant will continue burning coal and purchasing the San Juan mine could extend the life of dirty coal at the San Juan Generating Station for years to come.

"We sit in one of the best areas in the country for renewable energy," Eisenfeld says. "PNM has an opportunity to bring in wind and solar and they're choosing instead to invest in coal when most utilities in the U.S. are fleeing from it. I live in Farmington, ten miles from the plant, and we're constantly bringing up the respiratory issues, the heart attacks, the strokes, and mercury pollution. In this day and age, why would PNM dump all this money into a coal mine when we can do better? They're trying to perpetuate the notion that coal is the cheapest way to serve cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe. But coal is neither an inexpensive nor efficient way to generate electricity when the externalities are accounted for."

Eric Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, was a key player in securing the regional haze settlement agreement with the EPA. He is now working to maximize replacement power for the retiring coal-fired units at San Juan with clean energy. Regarding PNM's plan to acquire the San Juan mine, he says PNM is locking New Mexico into a risky pathway that is far too reliant on coal. "Coal not only harms our climate, public health, and natural heritage, it is also risky because it undermines our ability to rapidly transition to a more durable economy premised on clean, renewable energy."

Adds the Sierra Club's Kennedy-Howard: "Buying the San Juan mine is essentially life-support for a dirty, outdated coal plant at a time when the market and utility trend is to invest in renewables, not coal. There are better, safer, clean, more affordable choices in wind, solar, and efficiency."

Tags: Coal | New Mexico

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