EPA taking a second look at Desert Rock

Farmington, NM – Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency said they'd take a second look at a permit granted to a controversial coal-fired power plant known as Desert Rock. It's located on the Navajo reservation in northern New Mexico. Now the EPA is reconsidering. It could be an early signal of how the Obama administration plans to tackle air quality issues and even global warming. Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports.

In this corner of New Mexico, the Navajo reservation is a Mars-like landscape of mesas and giant sandstone slabs jutting out of the red earth. Underneath the ground are huge reserves of coal.

This is where the power plant would be built, and it's where Elouise Brown, a veteran from the first Iraq war, is leading the fight against it.

"We're trying to preserve our water, and clean air quality, all of that stuff is going to affect each person that lives on this earth."

Brown's office, so to speak, is a plywood shack ten miles down a rutted dirt road. Inside she ladles up mutton stew and thick, black coffee. Outside, a bonfire burns near a flagpole snapping in the stiff winter wind. She says the power Desert Rock generates won't benefit the 40 percent of Navajos who live without electricity.

"It's going to go to Las Vegas or Phoenix, so maybe they should build it down there, or build it in front of Joe Shirley's front yard?"

Joe Shirley is president of the Navajo Nation, and one of the plant's strongest advocates.

"It means jobs for my people, 500 more of my people that will be able to put food on the table, put shoes on little feet."

Desert Rock is expected to generate 50 million dollars annually for the tribe, where about half of all adults are unemployed. Shirley believes it will help his people stand on their own two feet again.

"Once upon a time, we were very independent, very fierce, very proud, a lot of it was taken away, not all of it, we're trying to get that back. As a sovereign nation, we like to believe that we take care of our own, take care of our own business."

But Shirley blames outside environmental groups for standing in the tribe's path. When the EPA first issued its air permit last summer, a coalition of environmental groups appealed. Mike Eisenfeld is with the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

"I have compassion for Mr. Shirley's position but I also think that a lot of times he refers to those of us who live on the border of the nation as foreigners, and we're all in this together. We suffer as well as a community from the existing air quality impacts of what's already here."

What's already here in the Four Corners region is two giant coal plants, as well as 35 thousand natural gas wells. But Desert Rock will contribute very little to local air pollution, says spokesman Frank Maisano.

"It's one of the cleanest coal plants that will ever be built to date, and frankly it's meeting a huge need where there's a vast power vacuum that needs to be filled in the next 3 or 4 years to keep the lights on, in a region that's going to continue to grow."

And that's the big question. How booming regions like the southwest are going to meet their growing electricity needs. Maisano says renewables can only get you so far.

"Solar and wind are going to be part of the mix, the problem is there's so much demand in the region, that you're going to have to have some sort of fossil mix as part of that."

The EPA will have the next say in whether Desert Rock will be part of that mix. And it's not just local air quality that regulators are beginning to focus on. They're also considering CUT (((new))) rules CUT (((on whether))) to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new coal plants...big contributors to global climate change. Since Desert Rock would pump out more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide ever year, it could be an early test case of just how far the Obama administration is willing to go to reign in global warming.