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New EPA rule compels San Juan, Four Corners coal plants to clean up ash waste

May 3—Two coal-fired energy plants have towered for many years on reverse sides of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico — twin engines producing immense vitality for a number of Western states and untold air pollution that is fouled the air, floor and water.

One of the behemoths, the San Juan Generating Station, shut down in 2022 after working for a half-century south of the river. The Four Corners Power Plant, constructed on the river’s north facet within the early Sixties, was scheduled to shut in 2031, however a proposed carbon sequestration system would possibly lengthen its life.

Both plants symbolize an period that is being referred to extra typically prior to now tense.

Coal is more and more seen as a unclean gas with smokestacks spewing particulates and climate-warming carbon dioxide, whereas the boilers that burn the coal create heaps of poisonous ash waste.

The ash, laced with toxins, has proved troublesome at these plants positioned simply 9 miles aside close to Farmington and the Navajo Nation.

Most of the waste was funneled into slurry ponds or buried in pits on web site or at close by mines. At least half of the ash disposal areas are unlined, posing a menace to groundwater and the river.

Utilities have made little effort to deal with the leaking ash dumps and make them much less dangerous to the setting.

But that is altering.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a brand new rule that requires firms to do a radical stock of on-site ash pits and remediate each one that may leach contaminants into groundwater, regardless of how outdated it’s.

Conservationists and neighborhood advocates hailed the brand new rule, saying it is means overdue in making utilities clean up a hazardous mess that is contaminating beneficial waters in a state rising extra arid with local weather change.

“The San Juan River is still an important lifeblood for the region,” stated Robyn Jackson, govt director of the nonprofit advocacy group Diné CARE. “Any way the river is impacted very much affects that region.”

About 19 Navajo communities depend on the river for farming and conventional practices associated to water and meals, Jackson stated, so the ash air pollution imperils their well being and livelihoods.

Coal ash incorporates arsenic, lead, sulfide, selenium, nitrate and different heavy metals. Long-term publicity to this waste could cause kidney and liver harm, coronary heart issues and most cancers.

An estimated 50 million tons of ash had been disposed of on the San Juan web site and 33.5 million tons at Four Corners.

Public Service Company of New Mexico is almost all proprietor of the defunct San Juan plant, and Arizona Public Service is the first proprietor of the Four Corners facility. These two utilities will likely be tasked with figuring out and remediating their on-site ash waste underneath the rule.

A PNM consultant gave a short reply to a listing of emailed questions on how the utility will reply to the brand new necessities.

“We appreciate the EPA’s focus on our clean energy transition,” PNM spokeswoman Kelly-Renae Huber wrote. “We will continue to manage to EPAs regulations.”

APS spokesman Mike Philipsen additionally gave a brief reply on how the corporate will deal with the rule’s cleanup pointers for Four Corners.

“APS is reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s package of final rules for power plants … to understand the full impact on the generation sources that APS uses to reliably power Arizona,” Philipsen wrote in an e mail.

An necessary regulatory step

Conservationists say the rule has one evident flaw: It would not require utilities to deal with thousands and thousands of tons of ash used to fill mining excavation pits, a lot of that are unlined close to the aquifer and river.

Although the EPA has the authority to regulate the waste at mining websites, the company selected not to, regardless of the hazards of leaving ash in unsealed pits close to the San Juan and Four Corners’ plants, stated legal professional Lisa Evans with the nonprofit Earthjustice.

“Both of those places are problems and have documented contamination,” Evans stated.

It will likely be up to the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement to difficulty a rule for coping with ash waste at mines, and to date it has been gradual to accomplish that, she stated.

Still, the brand new laws requiring 100% cleanup of the on-site ash are important progress, she added, even in contrast to the Obama administration’s 2015 coal ash rule.

The 2015 rule solely utilized to locations that also took waste or had been at plants that also produced electrical energy after the rule went into impact — basically grandfathering in legacy ash ponds.

Its restricted scope was problematic as a result of the older ash ponds and lagoons have a number of the worst air pollution, Evans stated.

Earthjustice challenged the Obama rule, and in 2018 the federal appeals courtroom in Washington, D.C., dominated the EPA had erred in excluding the legacy ponds from regulation, given these older dumping areas posed as a lot threat, if not larger threat, than the newer ponds.

The Trump administration did not adjust to the courtroom order, however President Joe Biden’s EPA has, Evans stated.

As a fundamental measure, ash should be faraway from unlined pits and ponds, Evans stated. From there, it will possibly return into lined disposal areas or be recycled into building supplies comparable to cement, sheetrock or roadway filler.

In some circumstances, if the bottom the place the waste is contained is dry sufficient, it may be capped or coated, she stated.

Still, the vitality and coal industries have fought efforts to make them handle their coal waste higher and redress air pollution, Evans stated. They typically have prevailed by way of sturdy lobbying and well-funded campaigns.

But the transition to pure fuel and now renewable vitality is regularly phasing out coal-fired electrical energy, making it much less of a sacred cow, she stated. “And the [Biden] administration’s explicit commitment to environmental justice is an important driver for finally cleaning up these toxic sites.”

Jackson, of Diné CARE, agreed. After Navajos took the brunt of the world’s ash air pollution for a few years — each of their water and within the air with what’s generally known as “fugitive dust” — the federal government is taking the primary necessary steps to defend them.

“Unfortunately, the new rules won’t apply to all of those disposal areas,” Jackson stated, referring to the mining websites. “The ones where it does apply, it’s going to be very beneficial.”

Ash waste a ‘huge deal’

Ash waste turned fodder for an additional authorized battle on the San Juan plant.

The Sierra Club filed a criticism in 2010, alleging ash deposited underground close to the San Juan coal mine precipitated pollution to stream down an arroyo into the river.

The defendants — which included PNM and the mine operator — disputed this competition however finally agreed in a 2012 settlement to set up a slurry wall throughout the arroyo to block the runoff, Sierra Club legal professional Peter Morgan wrote in an e mail.

“We’ve always seen the slurry wall as a temporary solution,” Morgan wrote. “We fully support additional investigations and efforts to clean up both the power plant site and the coal mine.”

The slurry wall ought to be reexamined as a part of the plant’s inventorying to guarantee it is working in addition to PNM officers say it’s, stated Mike Eisenfeld, vitality and local weather program supervisor for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group.

The two plants each had been constructed close to coal mines that might conveniently feed them, making a waste loop for ash to fill pits the place coal was extracted, Eisenfeld stated.

Energy and mining executives have stated repeatedly they do not imagine the large quantity of poisonous ash the plants generated is an enormous deal as a result of New Mexico would not have the rainfall to wash it into the waterways, he stated.

But, he added, analysis exhibits the waste nonetheless can seep into groundwater.

“We think it’s a big deal,” he stated.

It’s necessary that the EPA rule compels remediation of ash dumps not solely in energetic coal-fired plants like Four Corners, however decommissioned ones like San Juan, Eisenfeld stated. Otherwise, the businesses can stroll away and go away the mess for taxpayers to clean up.

“The federal government finally decided it’s an issue,” Eisenfeld stated. “I think that there’s more of a recognition of what the potential problem is.”

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