Coal ash storage a concern at power plant

Sierra Club report pushes for stronger safeguards, warns of health risk

A new report released by the Sierra Club is critical of coal-ash storage facilities and expansion plans at the Four Corners Power Plant, located on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

The report, titled "Disaster Waiting to Happen" states that the plant's operator, Arizona Public Service, has stored 50 to 55 million tons of coal ash in unlined pits near the San Juan River.

The EPA does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, the report states, so there is little known about how the coal ash is being stored and if safeguards are adequate to protect public health.

"The major concerns for Navajo tribal members are the health impacts and financial burden of health care due to coal ash," said Lori Goodman, coordinator for Dine' Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.

"We have concerns about what would happen if the millions of tons of toxic coal ash is released or floods the nearby rivers."

The report classifies the plant's coal-ash storage as a "potential disaster" and a "significant" hazard level.

APS and the Navajo Mine Coal Co. are seeking renewed energy leases and mine permits from the federal government allowing the power plant to operate until 2041.

The mine is seeking a five-year permit to continue mining operations and extract 5.8 million tons of coal per year, down from 8 million tons per year.

After the coal is burned, the remaining ash is stored on site in managed piles which are proposed to be expanded.

According to a recent Environmental Impact Statement, APS plans to construct five additional coal-ash disposal areas that would be 60 acres each and reach a height of 120 feet.

Once storage capacity for each site is reached in five years, it would be closed and protected by a evapotranspiration cover made up of sand, clay soils, and rock.

To better understand how coal ash is impacting the environment, Earthjustice conducted testing on the Chaco River, which runs adjacent to the power plant and within 50 feet of the coal-ash piles. It is a tributary of the San Juan River.

The report states that for nearly 40 years, coal ash from the plant was sent back to the mine and dumped into "disposal" pits that have no protective linings.

The report cites multiple studies showing groundwater and surface water downstream of the power plant contain harmful levels of boron, copper, lead, selenium, mercury and zinc.

"That could only reasonably be attributed to coal-ash contamination," the report says. "The coal-ash sites are neighbors to large numbers of Navajo people, putting their health and welfare in danger."

Studies claim Navajo residents who live near unlined coal-waste facilities and whose drinking water source is groundwater, have a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer, a risk 2,000 times greater than EPA proposed standards.

Since 2007, APS began disposal of ash in two large lined landfills near the plant.

Paul Clark, an environmental technician with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, worked on the recent EIS, and said safety precautions are taken with the coal ash piles.

"Five new monitoring wells will be installed within the expanded coal-ash disposal area," he said.

Also, an interceptor ditch is planned between the ash pile disposal area and the Chaco River.

"If there were a breach, it would collect in the ditch and be pumped back to containment, "Clark said.

A lined, surge pond is also planned for construction to capture coal-ash wastes and historic ash impoundment seepage.

The EPA is considering whether to manage coal ash as a hazardous wastes. A decision is expected in December.

"There is plenty of data proving the toxicity of coal ash, and recent events show just how dangerous coal ash is to our water and environmental resources," said Nellis Kennedy-Howard, a Sierra Club manager. "A strong coal-ash rule will require responsible cleanup and improved plans for future storage of coal ash at the Four Corners Power Plant."

In December 2013, the Four Corners Power Plant permanently shut down three of their most outdated coal-fired generating units as part of new Clean Air Act rules.

The plant is expected to receive a renewed lease with stipulations for pollution-control upgrades on the remaining two units. But environmental groups warn that lack of regulation for coal-ash should not be overlooked.

"Without stronger protections, APS will create more mountains of poorly managed coal ash," said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico Energy Coordinator for San Juan Citizen's Alliance. "It is incumbent upon APS to seek off-site alternatives for storing coal waste and consider how their storage methods impact their neighbors."

View the Sierra Club report at