Reader View: PNM, the PRC and water

Maybe we need a simple rule: Don’t use water to generate electricity in the desert.

You may have heard that Public Service Company of New Mexico has agreed to close two of the four coal-fired units at the San Juan Generating Station to cut air emissions. This presents an opportunity to move toward clean energy. Yet PNM has chosen to replace the energy primarily with gas, nuclear and coal purchased from entities fleeing the plant.

Much has been written about the carbon generation associated with coal production. But there’s another story, and it’s close to our hearts.

No one needs to tell anyone living in the Southwest that we must conserve water. If the Public Regulation Commission accepts PNM’s plan, water use will go from 5.4 billion to 5.17 billion gallons a year. This does little to conserve and nothing to address the pollution of our waterways, including the San Juan River.

Little discussed is PNM’s ground- and surface-water pollution. Before PNM, the two arroyo systems that converge on the land were dry. All information collected on the groundwater indicates that there was little, if any, water in the sands of these channels. But PNM discharge quickly filled the groundwater system and surface water began to flow, carrying contaminants down the arroyo to the San Juan River.

The contamination problem is simple. Coal contains countless contaminants, including mercury, arsenic and lead. In nature, these are contained in small concentrations, buried and isolated. Mining coal exposes these toxins to the forces of nature, and burning coal concentrates them. PNM was required to reduce air pollution, but here’s the dirty secret: Improvements in air quality come at the expense of soil, groundwater and surface water contamination. When PNM installed scrubbers, they were cleaned with water then discharged to the arroyo system. Evaporation ponds were installed for this wastewater, but they leaked: first to groundwater then surface water, and finally to the San Juan River.

PNM claims that natural salts are mistaken for company pollution. Yet as the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environment Department concluded, the salts would not have gone anywhere if PNM had not introduced water to the system. The discharge water picks up contaminants as it flows through mine spoils and coal ash en route to the San Juan River.

PNM has tried to plug the leaks, but with the importation of billions of gallons of water every year, a leak-proof system is impossible. So we return to our rule: Don’t use water to generate electricity in the desert.

The biggest pollution problem of all won’t be realized in our lifetimes. It’s the coal mine itself, which is used as a dumping ground for contaminants from chemical processes and coal ash. Today the mine is dry, because it’s de-watered to remove coal. However, the plant won’t exist forever. When activity stops, the mine will fill up with groundwater, and instead of reaching layers of coal sandwiched between nearly impermeable layers of sandstone and shales, it will saturate rubble and coal spoils containing salts from crushed natural rocks and coal ash containing concentrated heavy metals.

Who will pay to clean up this toxic soup? The same people who have always paid for PNM’s pollution — the public.

So here’s a final rule: If nature has dispersed dangerous chemicals in small concentrations and isolated them from the environment, leave them alone.

Does the PRC understand the value of water and the cost of environmental contamination, both external to formal cost analyses?

Because we’ll all pay, eventually. Will we pay for sustainable energy now to conserve water and avoid saddling future generations with untold environmental cleanup costs?

Paul Davis is a hydrologist and owner of EnviroLogic Inc. He has studied groundwater and surface water associated with the San Juan Generating Station on and off for more than 20 years.

Read the article here.

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