By Mona Blaber, Chapter communications director
From the Fall 2022 newsletter
Partially delayed and accompanied by drama and uncertainty, the last operating stack at San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, N,M., burned its last ton of coal in the early morning of Sept. 29.
In 2017, majority owner and operator Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) announced that the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station was too expensive to operate and that the last two of the plant’s four units would be retired in 2022, rather than operating until 2053. On-the-ground communities and advocates had long since called attention to the plant’s expense as well as its damage to health, air and our climate.
In 2019, New Mexico passed the Energy Transition Act (ETA) to build on PNM and Tucson Electric’s closure decisions by enabling use of low-interest bonds to save customers money and provide economic transition benefits to plant and mine workers and the community. About $40 million in funding through the Energy Transition Act has been or will be disbursed to plant and mine workers and the impacted community. Four Corners residents encouraged state agencies to act urgently to use the $20 million earmarked for community funding to invest in local, sustainable projects that move the region forward.
As PNM and the other owners retire the plant (which was shuttered sometime early this morning, when the coal stockpile ran out), community organizations issued the following statements:
“The plant closure has significant positive and negative implications. One positive impact is the anticipated release of ETA funds to help secure the self-sustenance of communities that were impacted by the plant,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie of ToohBAA, a Shiprock Farmers Cooperative. “Our farmers group in Shiprock applied for the funds in the hope that it will help address one of the great needs that our farmers have, with the provision of skilled labor. With the funds, we expect to acquire equipment operators, diesel mechanics, planners and administrators who will help organize our farming activity to optimize our agricultural potential. We look forward to an expedited release of those funds.”
Community organizations also focused on the need to properly reclaim, decommission and clean up the plant, rather than allowing it to continue to pollute under Enchant, which has failed to obtain the permits, buyers or funding to operate with carbon capture, a technology that has failed in every commercial coal plant where it has been tried. At its peak, San Juan Generating Station used more water than the entire city of Santa Fe. Some of the water rights from the plant have now been allocated to run in the San Juan River.
“We now have an opportunity to protect and manage water sources in the Four Corners region,” said Jessica Keetso of Tó Nizhóni Aní, Navajo Nation. “A transition to solar, wind, renewable, clean-energy investments helps eliminate the waste and misuse of water. Precious water sources have been used to feed giant power plants all over the Four Corners region for over half a century. These water sources are limited and have been compromised in many regions. It’s time to make sure that transition and cleanup happen in an organized and speedy manner, and that ETA investments bring an opportunity for coal-impacted communities to drive economic diversification.”
“As Four Corners residents, we want to see the negotiated replacement power, solar and energy storage, and we want the ETA implementation money to go to the impacted coal workers and communities,” said Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Enchant Energy has been disingenuous and unaccountable on the progress of their project, which joins a long list of failed carbon-capture and sequestration projects funded through the Department of Energy. City of Farmington has expended nearly $2 million in legal fees supporting Enchant’s failed project with timelines now extending to 2027. We’re looking at the immediate need for past and current owners to carry out their decommissioning and reclamation responsibilities within 90 days of SJGS and San Juan Mine closure.”
“Today marks a pivotal moment in our Four Corners region with the decline of fossil-fuel production. We regard this moment as a transformation for the environment in less CO2, methane, NOx, VOCs, coal ash, and other toxic pollutants. We welcome a return of cleaner air and water for the health of tribal communities and climate,” said Ahtza Chavez, Executive Director of Naeva.
“Abandonment and remediation will be difficult. Over 50 years of damage was done to the environment,” said Norman Norvelle, former San Juan Generating Station plant chemist and Farmington resident. “From releasing plant wastewater effluent into the Shumway arroyo, to air pollutants and mercury into the San Juan River watershed and the fish of quality waters. Also, plant solid and liquid waste disposal into unlined surface mine pits. Even after the plant is shut down there will be need for extensive cleanup and monitoring to verify cleanup of the contaminants. Sampling and monitoring should be done by 3 or 4 different organizations to assure completeness and honesty.”
If not done adequately, the San Juan Generating Station chemical contaminants will go into the San Juan River near the Hogback. All of the contaminants from the plant plus the biological contaminants from San Juan County, such as fecal bacteria, will flow into the San Juan River Basin onto the Navajo Reservation to Lake Powell.”
“The San Juan Generating Station has been a source of jobs and revenues in Four Corners for more than half a century, but it can no longer be operated in a manner that is fiscally and environmentally responsible,” said Cydney Beadles, Managing Senior Staff Attorney of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program. “The Energy Transition Act helps mitigate the impacts on local workers and communities and ensures that ratepayers get the cost savings that come from shutting down an inefficient coal plant, and the Public Regulation Commission issued an order requiring bill credits upon abandonment. Unfortunately, those credits have been temporarily suspended by the state Supreme Court at PNM’s request, but we remain hopeful that the court will soon lift that stay.”
“The solar and storage replacement power approved in 2020 will provide $1 billion in investment in the communities most impacted by San Juan,” added Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director. “With pandemic supply-chain and other delays, it is incumbent upon PNM to work with developers of the solar and storage replacement power to overcome these obstacles and get those projects online as soon as possible. Analyses showed that the San Juan Solar project, to be sited in the same school district, will replace 100% of the property-tax base of San Juan.”
Featured image: An aerial view of the San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine taken by Mike Eisenfield of San Juan Citizens’s Alliance, which has held lead the local charge for cleaner energy solutions in the Four Corners for decades.