New Energy Economy congratulates all the activists, organizers, elected officials and people of San Juan County who fought to bring an end to the toxic fumes and climate altering emissions that have been poisoning the children of Northern New Mexico for 50 years.
SAN JUAN COAL PLANT CLOSED
BUT OUR WORK IS NOT DONE
We call on NMED to require land and water restoration now.
Public Service Company of New Mexico (“PNM”) is finally closing its flagship coal plant, San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) and the adjacent San Juan Mine (SJM), after 50 years of operation. PNM’s current plan is not to clean up its 250-acre site for 25 years – instead implementing a “retirement-in-place” scenario, meaning PNM would shut down operations at SJGS without full plant decommissioning and reclamation.
The New Mexico Environment Department needs to conduct an independent comprehensive evaluation of the SJGS site and adjacent mine, provide an assessment of the damages to the environment and public health, and institute a plan for clean-up with appropriate oversight and monitoring to ensure compliance.
Three areas of specific concern:
Coal Combustion Residue (CCR), also known as “coal ash,” from the SJGS is being disposed in surface mine pits at the adjacent San Juan Mine (SJM). The mine is permitted to place CCR in layers up to 60-feet thick that are then covered with a minimum of 10-feet (15-feet under drainages) of mine spoils plus a thin layer of topsoil. The mine pits contain many millions of tons of CCR with more being added each day. CCR is a hazardous waste containing: aluminum, arsenic, boron, barium, calcium, selenium, silicon, and vanadium, at a minimum. According to PNM, “as of June 30, 2019, PNM estimates that approximately 59,000,000 tons of CCR’s have been produced since SJGS has been operating.” 1 CCR at the SJM is disposed of in unlined pits making the likelihood of leaching from these waste contaminants foreseeable. In fact, another PNM witness testified that the mine pits would be infiltrated by both rainwater and groundwater over time. 2 Failure to isolate coal ash waste from water will result in leaching of contaminants, which will degrade water quality and negatively impact the environment and public health. Consistent with the public’s reports of health impacts, these chemicals cause health impacts like cancer, respiratory illnesses, and birth defects. 3
Existing Nitrate Plume: Since 2014, PNM has reported at least 14 major spills of contaminants on the San Juan site to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). 4 The largest discharge of the last ten years, a spill of processed water contaminants from San Juan’s North Evaporation Pond, was not reported to NMED. 5 The North Evaporation Pond discharge caused a plume of nitrate contaminants and impacted local groundwater at San Juan. 6 Water samples have contained elevated nitrate, sulfate, chloride and total dissolved solids. These toxins are all carcinogenic.
Golden Pond: An unlined pond of toxic soup. SJGS chemical-filled wastewater from all sources was dumped for years into a repository, an acre or more in surface area, that workers referred to as “golden pond,” because of the dark yellow color of the liquid waste that workers put into the pit. The wastewater discharge was a combination of sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfate, sodium sulfate and sodium thiosulfate. This wastewater discharge was about 33% w/ salt solution of sodium sulfur wastes. The wastewater discharge was disposed of in a large unlined open pit. The average waste discharge from the system was about 5 gallons per minute. The system was in operation about 16 years. This would be about 40 million gallons of waste dumped into the mine or over 73,584 tons of sodium sulfur salt disposed of in the mine. PNM had trucks going down on a daily basis to transport and dispose of the chemical plant system waste discharge into the pit. When workers could not process the wastewater fast enough PNM employees opened the pond drain valve to release excess wastewater into the Shumway Arroyo. The “overflow” waste was discharged regularly into the Shumway Arroyo for years. The Shumway Arroyo emptied into the San Juan River. Given this known history of contamination (let alone what is unknown), an independent comprehensive assessment must be performed in order to develop a comprehensive cleanup plan. New Mexican communities, especially Diné communities, know too well about what happens when industrial polluters are allowed to walk away from projects at the time of closure. The cleanup must be done NOW.
Until it is remediated, the site poses an ongoing health and environmental threat to the immediate community. For one thing there may be no such thing as the PNM 25 years from now, in which case it is possible that no one will take responsibility for this mothballed power plant which could be leaching contamination into the surroundings for years. Additionally, a “retirement-in-place” plan is not actually a plan – it is a do nothing strategy that will result in intergenerational inequity. Over the long term, retirement in place is not the “lowest cost option,” it cannot possibly be so. As PNM’s own decommissioning study 7 demonstrates, a “retire-in-place” scenario simply kicks the can down the road, eventually imposing more costs than immediate full demolition would. PNM’s decommissioning study (Burns & McDonnell) and its mine reclamation study (Golder Report) do not address environmental contamination onsite at all. PNM’s 2019 estimate for decommissioning in 25 years is $193 million. PNM’s “retire-in-place” scenario is not only a public health risk, it appears that leaving the plant to languish empty for ten or twenty-five years proves to be a much more
An independent assessment of the site’s contamination is necessary. It is wholly inadequate to leave the evaluation of cleanup to the entity that has been contaminating the land, air, and water for fifty years now. PNM has no incentive whatsoever to do a full cleanup and to ensure that the surrounding communities, including members of the Navajo Nation, are left with clean water, soil, and air, and that the community’s traditional land-based practices be able to continue.
Environmental justice requires that NMED undertake a full environmental impact assessment and prevent harms from continuing and worsening.
1 19-00018-UT, PNM’s Answer to New Energy Economy’s interrogatory 1-98, Thomas Fallgren, PNM’s Vice President of Generation.
2 19-00018-UT, TR. Hearing, 12/12/19 (PNM Geologist, Douglas Cowin).
3 For example, 19-00018-UT, TR. Hearing, 12/18/19 (Diné CARE, Adella Begaye).
4 19-00018-UT, NEE Exhibit 14.
5 19-00018-UT, TR. Hearing, 12/12/19 (PNM Environmental Manager John Hale).
6 19-00018-UT, NEE Exhibit MAH -2, PNM letter to NMED (11/30/2017) and attached “Final Report of Elevated Nitrate Concentrations at Monitoring Well QNT”.
7 NEE Exhibit 13, Burns & McDonnell Decommissioning Report.