SANTA FE — Environmentalists, Native Americans and others packed a Public Regulation Commission auditorium Monday morning for the opening of hearings on Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plan to shut down half of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.
The hearings, expected to last at least two weeks, began with public comment on PNM’s plan, which aims to bring the power plant in compliance with federal haze regulations. PNM wants to shut two generating units and install pollution controls on the remaining two to cut nitrogen oxide emissions, which cause haze.
But environmental groups and others want PNM to forego even more of the remaining coal generation at the plant. They also oppose PNM’s plan to replace much of the lost coal with nuclear power, calling instead for the utility to seek more solar- and wind-generated electricity.
“We agree with shutting down two units at the plant, but we’re concerned that PNM’s plan will still lock us into continued use of coal for another 30 years,” Camila Feibelman, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter, told the PRC. “This is about more than just shutting two stacks at San Juan. It’s about whether PNM will be the Kodak of the utility industry, where it ignores the clean-energy revolution the same way Kodak ignored the digital revolution.”
Others spoke in favor of PNM’s plan, including Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and other Navajo chapter leaders. Shelly said about 80 of the 400 employees at the power plant, and about half of the 500 workers at the San Juan Coal Mine that supplies the generating station, are Native American, most of them Navajo. PNM’s plan, he said, will conserve those jobs.
“As president of the Navajo Nation, my job is to create and keep jobs,” Shelly told the commission. “We want to see environmental improvement like everyone, but we don’t want to see unnecessary economic damage to the regional economy.”
On the other hand, a large contingent of Native Americans from grass-roots Navajo organizations spoke against PNM’s plans, calling instead for total shutdown of the coal plant and rejection of nuclear energy.
“Today we are not united as a nation,” said Norman Patrick Brown, a Navajo leader from Black Mesa in Arizona. “Our government and our communities are divided.”
Eloise Brown, a Navajo from Black Rock in New Mexico, said one of her family members recently died from cancer, and many of her neighbors suffer from health problems connected to fossil fuels.
“President Shelly spoke about jobs, but which is more important, jobs or health?” Brown asked.
Public comments will be followed by testimony from expert witnesses representing PNM and other parties in the case, a process that could take two or three weeks, PRC hearing examiner Ashley Schannauer said.
The deliberations will focus on a settlement PNM reached with six other parties. That agreement commits PNM to substantially reduce the costs it will recover from ratepayers for the San Juan overhaul, and for the nuclear energy it will purchase to replace lost coal generation. All told, the tab could reach nearly $500 million depending on what the PRC approves.
But six other parties oppose the agreement.
Schannauer will make a recommendation to commissioners on what to do about a month after the hearings conclude.