Governor Richardson, Attorney General King Blast EPA for Violating Clean Air Act in Fast Tracking Desert Rock Permit

Governor and Attorney General Issue Letter to EPA Criticizing the Agency’s Failure to Provide Environmental Analyses regarding Harmful Pollutants from the Proposed Plant
(SANTA FE) New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Attorney General Gary King today criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for violating the federal Clean Air Act by fast tracking a permit for the proposed Desert Rock coal fired-power plant without completing the proper reviews on important air pollution issues.
Governor Richardson and Attorney General King assert in their letter that EPA’s recent proposal to expedite the permitting decision for the proposed plant without conducting required environmental analyses of hazardous air pollutants could have severe negative impacts on air quality for New Mexicans and others in the region. The proposed plant, under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation, would be in northwest New Mexico.
"EPA is overlooking air quality protections in federal law by fast tracking this permit,” Governor Richardson said. “This is a grave mistake. The children of northwestern New Mexico should not have to be exposed to higher levels of mercury and lead in the air they breathe. New Mexico and the nation must be making advances toward new clean technologies for electricity rather than continuing to build the dirty coal plants of yesterday.”
Governor Richardson has been vocal in his opposition to the proposed plant because of well-documented detrimental impacts from coal fired power plants on human health, especially on children.
“The Clean Air Act is very clear in spelling out what the EPA must do to protect people from hazardous power plant emissions,” said Attorney General King. “Because EPA listed coal-fired power plants as a major source of hazardous air pollutants, we are on solid legal ground to request that the EPA do what the law says.”
The EPA must do a complete and thorough analysis before reaching any conclusions on this air permit, the joint letter states. They also criticize EPA for failing to abide by the Clean Air Act, which prohibits the construction of new power plants without a prior EPA maximum achievable control technology determination for the emission of hazardous air pollutants. In addition to providing that determination, EPA is also required by law to identify a procedure it will follow related to that process.
EPA, which has not made a MACT determination in this case, previously issued a rule that sought to avoid that requirement for power plants altogether. However, New Mexico along with other states recently prevailed in overturning EPA’s attempted roll back in a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The letter also expresses “serious concerns about the environmental impacts of constructing Desert Rock in a region already impaired by other large coal-fired power plants.”
Mercury contamination from Desert Rock poses great threats to the health of New Mexico’s children and to local waterways. Mercury, a known neurotoxin which contributes to learning disabilities in children, also pollutes nearly every reservoir in New Mexico with high levels of contamination.
Desert Rock is expected to emit substantial amounts of mercury, arsenic, lead, dioxins, and other hazardous air pollutants, including approximately 166 tons per year of hydrogen chloride and 13.3 tons per year of hydrogen fluoride.
Governor Richardson in recent months directed New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry to meet with the Navajo Nation related to the state’s issues with the plant.
The Environment Department determined the proposed facility will adversely impact air quality, exacerbate existing environmental problems and negatively impact scarce surface and ground water resources. Also, the technology as proposed by Sithe Global refuses to consider real technological advances in the area of combating global climate change. The Environment Department has concerns that Sithe's investment in plant planning is outdated without taking into account the needs of climate change policy.
The estimated 12 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted each year from the Desert Rock Energy Facility would increase New Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 15 percent.
Read letter from the Governor and Attorney General to the EPA

RIO RANCHO Responding to congressional demands and a 2006 series in the Los Angeles Times, the federal government has laid out a $161 million plan to prevent the spread of radioactive contamination on sites across the Navajo Nation.

The plan, released earlier this month to the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform and its chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., calls for the clean up of the Northeast Church Rock Mine near Gallup as well as a survey of structures and wells for contamination.

Despite coming decades after the Cold War-era uranium mining and the legacy of sickness and public health hazards it left in its wake, federal officials call the plan a landmark.

"It's a very big deal," Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Margot Perez-Sullivan says. It's the first time so many agencies -- the EPA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Indian Health Service -- have united their efforts to clean up the mess.

"In the past, BIA, Indian Health Services, DOE, NRC and EPA have each all done separate actions," she adds.

George Hardeen, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. agrees.

"Now finally after many years of the Navajo Nation going to Washington to plead this case that this has been needed for decades .. something is finally
happening," he says.

Of course, it took powerful people in Washington to take notice before the movement, says Chris Shuey of Southwest Research and Information Center, a non-profit focused on environment.

"Was the problem known to the agencies prior to this? Heck yes," Shuey says. "I think the L.A. Times did catch Waxman's attention. But something is finally happening. There's a lot of good things in the plan."

EPA's Superfund Branch Chief for the Pacific Southwest region acknowledges the impetus for the united effort was "the hearings before Oversight and Government Reform." 

But not everyone is so optimistic this new plan will end up making that big of a difference.

"I'm hopeful -- about 5 percent," said Navajo Teddy Nez, whose family lives near the contaminated Church Rock Mine and who says his well is contaminated "real bad." "All it is information to get back to Waxman (to show) that these guys are doing something, but they are not doing anything. There's a lot of talk but no action."

"We have people that went through chemotherapy in Albuquerque," Nez said. "There's a lot of disease that we are trying to address," he adds.

According to the Los Angeles Times, which wrote a series on the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajos, the nation's largest tribal homeland, which encompasses parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, contains about 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and four old processing mills.

The paper goes on:
From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were blasted from Navajo soil, nearly all of it for nuclear bombs. After 1971, utilities also bought uranium for nuclear power plants.

"The mine operators often left behind open tunnels, shafts and piles of radioactive waste. Federal inspectors knew of the hazards but seldom intervened. Meanwhile, Navajo cancer rates doubled and certain birth defects increased."
One estimate placed at 10,000 the number of people who worked in uranium mining in the United States from the late 1940s into the 1980s, with a disproportionate percentage of the workers being American Indians because of the location of the mining areas, according to an article in September 2007 edition of American Journal of Public Health.

 "These are the victims of the Cold War ... the miners who brought uranium out to protect the country," says Hardeen. 

To give a sense of how big a problem is, the Navajo tribal officials in Ocober asked Congress for at least $500 million to finish cleaning up lingering contamination on the reservation.
The plan itself provides a sense of the magnitude, and complexity, of the task at hand.

Indian Health Service says that the estimated cost of providing alternative water supplies for eligible Indians consuming water from 41 unregulated and potentially contaminated water sources to be up to $65 million, including planning, design, and construction costs. 

That agency also will continue to review existing databases to develop plans for improved cancer case surveillance, review water contamination data for potential future health studies, and develop plans to assess the prevalence of cancer and other health conditions for populations near inactive mill sites.

The Department of Energy, meanwhile, will work with other federal agencies and El Paso Natural Gas to determine whether clean up is required at a site different than the Northeast Church Rock Mine. If so, the DOE will work with them to consider sending the contaminated materials to its site in Grand Junction, Colo.

The five federal agencies will work together with the Navajo and Hopi tribes to assess whether interim actions are needed on still another site. By August, the Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to have completed an assessment of the need and feasibility of an interim measure to prevent contamination of nearby Hopi water supplies.

The report's authors write:
If an imminent threat to water supplies is identified, the agencies will determine the most appropriate authorities to achieve an interim remedy. These authorities might include a Superfund response or enforcement action.
But the highest-priority project is the Northeast Church Rock Mine, 17 miles northeast of Gallup, one of the worst contaminated places, federal officials say.

United Nuclear Corp. operated the site from the late 1960s into the 1980s --  with mining starting in 1968 and a mill opening in 1977. 

Over the years, uranium from the mill tailings -- the metal detritus of the mining process -- has leached into the groundwater. Exacerbating the situation, EPA officials say, was the water that was pumped out of the shafts underground and dumped it into a nearby arroyo at a rate of 1,500 gallons a minute. "For a number of years it was untreated," says Montomergy of the EPA.

As optimistic as officials are, there is a question of where the money will come from to pay for the major clean up the plan proposes. If history is an indicator, there may be reason to worry.

"If this was in any other part of the country, I'm confident that the resources would have been provided. The Navajo nation is very remote. It's not a developed area. Most people know it through tourism," says Hardeen, who holds out hope nonetheless this time around a major cleanup will occur. 

Perez-Sullivan of the EPA acknowledges that the cooperating agencies must perform the cleanup tasks within their existing budgets. But she adds that the EPA is spending $6 million to $7 million this year on the clean up effort, or four times what the agency spent each year over the past decade. 

The signs of the agency's emphasis on cleaning up the contamination are ubiquitous, she says. The agency has 30 people working on the project.

The money, which comes out of the federal Superfund program, also is paying for the survey of wells and structures for contamination -- it has discovered at least 13 contaminated structures. Agency employees also are going door to door to tell people not to drink out of wells. And the agency is running public service announcements on radio in Navajo and English, too, to get the message out, she says.

About 54,000 people in the area don't have access to regulated water systems, and some may use the wells for drinking water.

"We're working with local officials to identify sources of water people can use," says Montgomery. 

Ultimately, the plan calls for United Nuclear, now owned by GE, to reimburse the federal government for the cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock mine. But federal officials won't say what that may cost.

"The Navajos have asked us not to release our options that we have developed. So we can't talk cleanup costs," Montgomery says.

The Navajos are in negotiations with the company, he adds.

GE spokesperson Pat Zerbe said via e-mail Thursday that United Nuclear Corp. was acquired in 1997, long after UNC had discontinued uranium mining in the 1980s. She added that the company had been working cooperatively with the "US EPA to address the former UNC mill and mine sites."

Asked what response GE had to paying for the cleanup, Zerbe said the company "is currently actively engaged in dialogue with the US EPA and the Navajo Nation EPA to develop the long-term closure plan for UNC's former uranium operations. UNC is committed to meet its obligations under the current law and regulations to complete the mine closure and reclamation activities."

 Meanwhile, the work continues out on the Navajo land.

The EPA has spent five years and roughly $13 million identifying 520 abandoned mines in the area. "There hasn't been site-specific investigations on a lot of these mines," Montgomery says. But the EPA has agreed to identify the worst of the 520 mines and to figure out the clean up process.

"A large percentage of them are probably not going to rise to the level of federal superfund cleanup," Montgomery says.

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