After Decades of Activism, PNM Closes San Juan Generating Station, Leaving a Toxic Mess Behind

We celebrate the closure, but the toxic mess left behind isn’t just corporate neglect, it approaches premeditated murder. It took over 30 years to get it done, but the San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) closed operations yesterday. Today we review what took so long, what the shut down means, and what more there is to do to achieve climate justice for San Juan land and people. Put simply, PNM wants to walk away and leave $200M in remediation to us. Can this be legal?

At the end of this post is a youtube recording of a most informative interview on today’s topic in which I spoke with Chili Yazzie,an indigenous activist who has long been part of the effort to close San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) and has led or been part of many other activist efforts where climate justice and indigenous justice intersect. Joining him is Mariel Nanasi who in her role as Director and chief litigant for new Energy Economy has been using the courts and the PRC to hold energy and gas and oil industries accountable. The first 27 minutes of the 53 minute discussion will air on KSFR Saturday at 8:30am, but the full interview appears below. While the first 27 minutes are very informative, the less formal, conversational discussion that follows is well worth your time. We get into some deep waters.

Onward into today’s most messy problem. We’ll start with the long history of efforts to regulate and ultimately close SJGS, followed by a deep dive into the mess left behind and what we can do about it.

As reported in NM Political Report’s “Looking back at the San Juan Generating Station and those who fought against it,” way back on, July 1, 1969, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) and Tucson Gas and Electric signed an agreement to work together to open the San Juan Generating Station. The first unit was to be 330 megawatts.

The virtual silence from NM’s environmental community must have caused PNM and Tucson Gas & Electric to think this would be a walk in the park. And for quite a while it was.

While opposition to the San Juan Generating Station began even before its construction, there was hardly a strong, unified opposition from grassroots and grasstops enviro groups. As reported by NM Political Report:

New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water filed the first opposition to the power plant when PNM sought authorization from the New Mexico Public Service Commission, a predecessor of today’s New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, to build, own and operate the San Juan Generating Station. The group argued against the plant on the basis of the air pollution it would cause and it claimed the generating station was not necessary.

NM Political Report’s “Looking back at the San Juan Generating Station and those who fought against it,”

“Electric power services in the State of New Mexico do not presently need to be expanded and future needs are not critical enough to require an immediate hearing, particularly when balanced against the future welfare of this State,” the group stated in its petition to the Public Service Commission.

New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water was the sole group that filed to intervene in the case on behalf of the environment. That’s it. One group against PNM smelling profit, this was no match. With a guaranteed 10% profit on every dime spent constructing the plant, PNM was guaranteed to profit, whether or not NM needed the coal-fired energy.

But while in NM there was not exactly a strong, unified opposition, on a national level, attitudes about coal and fossil fuel extraction began to shift in about 2000, as concerns about coal’s impact grew. So, of course the U.S Dept of Energy took action, but not the kind of action one might expect in a rational, sane world. Rather than reining in the fossil fuel industry, it went to bat for them with a massive disinformation campaign:

By the early 2000s, the attitudes about coal-fired power plants had changed. Coal itself had faced decreasing support from the public through the 1990s despite federal efforts to improve perceptions. The U.S. Department of Energy engaged in what it called clean coal outreach that worked to convince people that coal was essential for the country’s future and that coal’s future relies on acceptance of clean coal technology.

NM Political Report’s “Looking back at the San Juan Generating Station and those who fought against it,

But despite the USDOE’s efforts to paint a clean picture of coal, concerns about climate change, air pollution, and acid rain fueled continuing change in public attitudes about coal. This alarmed the industry, which redoubled misinformation efforts. From the NM Political Report:

In 1997, a member of the National Mining Association spoke at an industry conference. The abstract for his talk stated that the industry had lost the public relations battle when it came to acid rain and was losing on the global warming front.

“The public should be told about the new clean coal technologies, and that using coal avoids the energy security problems of natural gas and oil,” the abstract states. “One way of spreading the message is to make contact with schools. There is certainly no need to fabricate a good image – the coal industry definitely is cleaner than it was ten years ago.”

NM Political Report’s “Looking back at the San Juan Generating Station and those who fought against it,

Yet, the movement opposing fossil fuels gained strength nationally and in NM. Camilla Feibelman, Director of the Rio Grande chapter of Sierra Club, was quoted extensively in the beginning of the article:

“There were just really powerful on-the-ground groups like San Juan Citizens Alliance and Diné C.A.R.E., who have been fighting for decades to really protect their community’s health,” she said. “And I think without organizations like that really kind of calling PNM to the table, we might not be in this moment.”

I would add New Energy Economy (NEE) to her list, as beginning in 2008 through to the present day, they have been a persistent proponent for shutting down San Juan. And they were hardly alone. From NM Political Report:

In 2002, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club filed suit against PNM for pollution from the San Juan Generating Station. The groups alleged that PNM was violating the Clean Air Act because Units Three and Four did not have what is known as a Prevention of Significant Deterioration, or PSD, permit.

Later, in 2012, following efforts by groups like San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians and Carson Forest Watch, the administrator of the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency found that the permit for operating the power plant did not comply with the Clean Air Act.

Ultimately, PNM reached an agreement. Two units shut down in 2017 and pollution controls were installed in the remaining two.

Air quality was not the only area where PNM faced lawsuits. In 2010, the Sierra Club sued PNM over coal ash and its impact on water.”

NM Political Report’s “Looking back at the San Juan Generating Station and those who fought against it,

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, joined the opposition to the San Juan Generating Station in 2008, and now that it is shuttered, they are insisting that PNM clean up its mess. I spent an hour Thursday morning interviewing Diné activist Chili Yazzie and Mariel Nanasi about the SJGS closure and PNM’s plan to just leave their mess behind. The YouTube recording of the interview can be found at the bottom of this post. In that interview, I used an analogy of how a two-year-old will strew blocks all over the floor and once the blocks no longer hold their interest, on to the next adventure, leaving the blocks for someone else to step on or pick up. A good parent teaches their two-year-old to clean up after themselves, understanding that if they don’t teach that lesson their child will continue to leave messes for others to pick up after them, and realizing that teenage messes can be far more serious than strewn blocks.

But as practiced in the U.S. and much of the developed world, capitalism has no “good parent” dynamic. No one reins in industry, indeed, as the quote about the mining industry and Dept of Energy make clear, we actually enable corporations to act like two-year-olds and, lo and behold, they turn into teenagers leaving far greater messes for us to clean up. The SJGS closure is an excellent example of what happens when government fails to act as a good parent or steward. What follows will stun you.

With the power plant closing, NEE has kicked off a letter-writing campaign and has placed ads in both the Santa Fe Reporter and the Santa Fe New Mexican. NEE has also written to James Kenney, Director of the NM Environment Dept. NEE’s three areas of specific concern, verbatim in all its shocking detail:

  1. 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 pits now 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.” 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. 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 empties into the San Juan River.

Okay folks, PNM is behaving like a two-year-old and no parent on the scene. Only we aren’t talking about leaving benign wooden blocks on the floor, but highly toxic effluent in the water that flows to Navajo Nation, a perfect capitalism-colonialism cocktail. Where is the parent??? More from NEE (with a smattering of Retake editorializing):

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. But PNM has no intention of disciplining itself and behaving responsibly. They are proposing to “Retire in place” for 25 years and then consider remediation. For one thing, there may be no such thing as 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 “retire-in-place” plan is not actually a plan — it is a do nothing strategy that will result in intergenerational inequity. Over the long term, retire-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 expensive option.

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.

If some clandestine underground group was doing what PNM is doing to San Juan, the Feds would consider it terrorism. Yet in the U.S. when business is dumping toxins into our drinking water, it is considered, good business sense. Capitalism in America! To be clear, I am not accusing PNM of premeditated murder or of terrorism, but it is helpful to take their behavior out of the business-as-usual world to see what it looks like in other, more normal contexts where ethical considerations actually matter.

While murder and terrorism seem a bridge too far, we do need a term for knowingly spewing toxins into the environment and poisoning the air and water for years and then walking away. Somehow, “out of compliance” or “socially irresponsible,” or “simply following the rules,” doesn’t capture the gravity of what has transpired and is transpiring in San Juan. And if they are just following the rules, we badly need new rules. Where are the adults in the room?

What is your term for this behavior?

NEE is asking its supporters and Retake supporters to contact Secretary James Kinney, Secretary of the NM Environment Dept  and insist that NMED conduct a comprehensive study of what remediation actions need to be taken immediately and the potential health impacts resulting from delay.

Secretary James Kenney:

You don’t have to cite NEE’s demands verbatim, indeed, it would be far better to put in your own words how appalled you are by the inaction and call out specifically that PNM’s plan to have SJGS “retire in place for 25 years” is an insult to the residents who have endured the environmental degradation of their air and water and have been subjected to innumerable life-threatening health impacts for 50 years and that you insist that NMED conduct a comprensive assessment of the toxins left behind, the remediation steps that need to be taken immediately and the health impacts that will result from delays.

It simply is not okay for PNM to load up their saddles with profit and ride off into the sunset leaving behind 50 years of their toxic filth. That isn’t the corporate responsibility that PNM is fond of crowing about in their ads, it is corporate profligacy: a capitalism and colonialism cocktail we are being forced to swallow because long ago and even today, there are no parents in the room.

Please write James Kenney today, then share this email with 5-10 friends and encourage them to write to Kenney, as well.

In solidarity & hope,

Paul & Roxanne

Don’t forget to watch this conversation. It is most informative, alarming and inspiring.

Categories: Climate Justice, Uncategorized

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1 reply

  1. Below is a little snippet of a piece in AP news Sunday, Oct. 2nd. There’s quite a bit more like what’s copied below. It was spun as a terrible injustice done to the Navajo Nation.

    Denise Pierro, a reading teacher at Judy Nelson, said it’s stressful for parents to see a steady income erased. Pierro’s husband, who served as the general manager of the mine for the San Juan plant, is among those forced into early retirement.

    “They’ve taken the rug out from underneath our feet,” she said.

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