WASHINGTON -- Conservation groups are worried that a proposed expansion of coal mining at the Four Corners Power Plant could reverse recent environmental gains at the plant that last year was on a list of dirtiest in the country.
But officials with Arizona Public Service, which is a majority owner in the plant, said the proposal is a step forward for the plant both economically as well as environmentally.
"We have reduced our coal burning by a third," said APS spokesman Damon Gross of the coal-burning plant near Farmington, N.M. "Getting more (coal) from another location won't affect how much our plant burns."
The proposal seeks to expand surface coal mining operations on 2,744 acres of the proposed Pinabete Permit area, with an eye toward providing 5.8 million tons of low-sulfur coal a year to the plant for 25 years, beginning in 2016. The plan was posted in Friday's Federal Register in a draft environmental impact statement by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Gross said the plan is the result of a lengthy research process on how to best improve on the prospects of the plant after the lease on the coal-rich lands owned by the Navajo Nation was extended to 2041. The plan will be the subject of a series of public hearings from late April to early May in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
Environmentalists said residents of that region are already affected by the plant.
"People who live near the plant often tell me that some days they feel like there's a dust storm," said Suma Peesapati, an attorney for Earth Justice, an environmental advocacy organization. "But it's just the plant."
She said that Four Corners made a step in the right direction after the release of a 2013 report that called it the 15th-worst power plant in the country in terms of pollution, but she is concerned that those gains could be lost with this new proposed mining operation.
But Gross said those days are behind the Four Corners plant. Since APS bought out Southern California Edison's shares in the plant, it moved to shut down three of the five generating units there, he said.
"We have two working units left and we are doing everything we can to upgrade them to be as environmentally clean as possible," Gross said, adding that environmental upgrades on those units are expected to be ready by 2016.
Gross also said that nitrogen-oxide emissions are projected to be reduced by 36 percent under the plant's current plan.
Mike Eisenfeld, a spokesman for San Juan Citizen's Alliance, an environmental advocacy group based in Farmington, said he worries about the environmental impact of the plan. But he also worris that public hearings on the proposal may not be reaching the right audience.
"Phoenix is the biggest consumer market for this plant, yet none of these open houses are scheduled in there," Eisenfeld said. "More people from the big cities need to be involved to make sure they know what kind of power they are consuming."
Eisenfeld also questioned the financial viability of coal as a future fuel source due to restrictive environmental regulations.
But Gross countered that coal "is only one part of APS' portfolio."
"We deal with many kinds of energy, but the Four Corners plant is what we consider one of our ‘base load' plants because we have it running 24/7 while other sources may have their occasional hindrances," he said.
Gross also pointed to the importance of the plant to the Navajo Nation.
"This plant has a $225 million impact on the community - 82 percent of the plant's workers are Navajo, and we are proud to support them," he said.