Monthly Archives: October 2011

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10/25/2011 Indian Country Today: Arsenic in Indian Water Tables Can Cause Diabetes, Other Illnesses

10/25/2011 Indian Country Today: Arsenic in Indian Water Tables Can Cause Diabetes, Other Illnesses By Terri Hansen: Arsenic, even for a poison, is one nasty brew. Long-term ingestion of the metallic substance can result in thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness in hands and feet, partial paralysis and blindness. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies inorganic arsenic as a Group A agent, a human carcinogen and, since the 1990s, exposure to it has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes mellitus.

New findings by a group of scientists add support for the theory that there is a link between arsenic and diabetes. Two coauthors of those studies are on an expert panel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program investigating the link between environmental chemicals and diabetes and obesity. “Our panel of experts, who met last January, concluded there is sufficient evidence to link high arsenic exposure in drinking water to diabetes,” says the study’s principal investigator, Miroslav Stýblo, a biochemist and an associate professor in the department of nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “With low levels, there is significant uncertainty. Our data also suggests that if you have a certain genetic makeup you are at higher risk.” Stýblo says typical exposure rates in the U.S. are lower than those in most studies that found an association with diabetes.

Arsenic occurs naturally in bedrock and soil, and is released through natural activities like volcanic action. Ninety percent of industrial arsenic in the U.S. is used as a wood preservative. Mining, smelting and agriculture also contribute to arsenic releases. To protect consumers of public water systems from the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic the EPA lowered the arsenic standard for drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb in 2001.

Stýblo and eight other scientists studied populations in the Zimapán and Lagunera regions in Mexico to determine whether exposure to arsenic in drinking water is correlated with an increased prevalence of diabetes. Their research was published in the August issue of the journal Environmental Health, and is “very relevant” for the Native American population, says study coauthor Dana Loomis, Associate Director, Cancer Prevention & Control at the Eppley Cancer Institute, University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha. “Most American Indians are living in the western U.S. It’s in that part of the country that elevated areas of arsenic exposures are found. It’s incorporated into the bedrock geology. Because of the way desert water systems work, the concentrations can be enhanced, especially in arid parts of the West.”

Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California in particular are worrisome areas for arsenic contamination. Another report adds Washington and Alaska to the list.

The Navajo Nation has more than 250,000 federally recognized members living on its sprawling 27,000-square-mile reservation on parts of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. Water supplies that do not meet U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act standards, particularly in the rural and remote areas of the reservation are of heightened concern. “There are some high contents of arsenic known on the Navajo Nation,” says George Breit, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, and one of the world’s leading experts on arsenic contamination in groundwater. He cites a study of the area of Hopi Buttes (Tsezhin Bii) that reported several rock samples with more than 100 parts per million.

Breit says all earth materials contain some arsenic; whether it can be transferred to water depends on the reactivity of its binding phase when placed in a different environment. “There are four general environments in which arsenic is present in sufficient concentrations in groundwater to be of concern,” he says. “The Navajo Nation has environments in which all four of these mechanisms may exist.”

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) is the only provider of drinking water for the reservation that meets the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Although the utility is extending its system, unregulated water is still the only water source for one quarter of the homes on the reservation. When the Diné Environmental Institute of the Diné College and the University of Nevada, Reno tested unregulated water supplies in 2008, they found that levels of arsenic and other contaminants including uranium exceeded the EPA Maximum Contaminant Levels. For the past four summers the Diné Environmental Institute has tested water supplies in the eastern region of the Navajo Nation. “We typically test water in the livestock wells because a lot of people are still not hooked up to water supplies,” says Diné College science department faculty chair Barbara Klein. “Even though the wells might not be potable, [people] end up drinking from [them].”

The teachers and students choose an area and test livestock wells, artesian wells and springs. “We typically test for bacteria,” Klein says. “Samples are sent for testing for heavy metals. We pay most attention to arsenic and uranium.” She says they’ve found dangerously high levels of uranium in areas where there are a lot of reclaimed and unreclaimed uranium mines.

When the EPA, Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NTUA and Navajo representatives formed the Navajo Access Workgroup to undertake a 2010 project to map the water infrastructure, their results indicated a funding need for a “Shiprock to Sweetwater” project that would address the problem of high arsenic levels in the source water of 1,001 homes.

Water safety is the focus of Forgotten People, a community development corporation on the Navajo Nation. Program director Marsha Monestersky says their advocacy resulted in the Navajo Nation issuing a Declaration of Public Health State of Emergency in the Black Falls/Box Springs (Arizona) region in the southern portion of the western agency of the Navajo Nation in January of 2010. “We have the EPA test results and the data that show all the water sources in [that region] exceed EPA standards for arsenic and uranium,” she says. Their organization received an Environmental Excellence award from the Navajo Nation EPA in 2009, and a $20,000 environmental justice grant from the U.S. EPA that same year. “Our job is really hard because a lot of people we’re working with have cancer, and there’s a lot of diabetes,” Monestersky says. “Every time they build a dialysis center it can’t accommodate all the patients [because] the need is so great.”

Arsenic is a concern elsewhere. The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona objected to the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Program two years ago in part because the subsequent new mining would expose the tribal community to “abundant deposits of…poisonous arsenic.”

Arsenic got top billing on the Tohono O’odham Nation’s (TON) list of environmental health threats in their Comprehensive Cancer Prevention and Control Plan: 2010-2015 sponsored by the CDC. “All Americans,” said TON’s Environment and Cancer Committee in the report, “including the O’odham are entitled to clean water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Whether arsenic is linked to illness or cancer is not as critical as the fact that low-level chronic exposure to the human body is not a healthy thing.”

At the time of the report arsenic concentrations in their water ranged from trace amounts to 1,000 ppb. At least 23 of their communities have water with elevated levels of arsenic, and 17 of their 35 public water systems have arsenic levels from 10 ppb up to 32 ppb, above the EPA standard for arsenic but considered low compared to other areas in Arizona. Their report also cites an earlier study linking arsenic exposure through drinking water with a higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes.

TON’s pilot arsenic treatment using iron-oxide adsorption reduced arsenic at a public water system from 33 ppb to less than 1 ppb. TON’s report recommends the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the CDC use their public health authority to ensure funding. They claim that since their report was issued they’ve resolved much of the problem.

In Alaska, some of their high arsenic levels occur naturally, and some are produced by military and mining operations, says Pamela Miller, executive director for the Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “At Kivalina’s Red Dog Mine, there is concern that emissions from the mining operations are transmitted atmospherically,” Miller says. “Fish have elevated levels of arsenic in their muscle and liver. A study found that levels found in fish were higher in Alaska than in California. We’re concerned about the levels of arsenic in groundwater, but we also recognize arsenic can be transported in the air, and deposited in waters and taken in by sea creatures important to tribal subsistence.”

Regardless of the arsenic link to diabetes, Stýblo says that the number-one reason for the diabetes epidemic is U.S. is obesity. “I think it’s fair to say exposures in the U.S. are lower than most studies found to be associated with diabetes. If arsenic contributes, it’s relatively minor. It is possible that arsenic may work with obesogens, but obesity remains the number-one explanation.” Obesogens are environmental contaminants that promote obesity. Diabetogens promote diabetes. Arsenic does not seem to promote obesity, but acts as a direct diabetogen, Stýblo says. Other organic and inorganic compounds are also thought to cause diabetes. “Most of them seem to promote obesity first; diabetes is a secondary effect, i.e. resulting from obesity.”

Although the arsenic levels are low for many people in the U.S., Stýblo says it is still a significant issue, “because we have tens of millions people worldwide who are exposed to high arsenic levels, so it’s still affecting a very large number of people. Arsenic is known as a carcinogen; it’s only recently that people like us became interested in its toxicology.”

Loomis agrees, “Even a minor cause is important when large numbers of people are exposed to it.”

10/27/2011 Navajo Times: Bogus bonuses – 2 Tuba City officials removed for scamming illegal bonuses

10/27/2011 Navajo Times: Bogus bonuses – 2 Tuba City officials removed for scamming illegal bonuses By Bill Donovan, Special to the Times: Two officials for Toh Nanees Dizi Chapter has been removed from office in the investigation into five officials accused of illegally paying themselves bonuses totaling over $80,000. Jimmy Holgate, who served on the chapter governing council, was removed on Tuesday when he failed to show up for a hearing before the Office of Hearings and Appeals. The hearing included witnesses who had traveled all of the way from Tucson. As a result of the default judgment, Holgate will have to reimburse the chapter $7,644 and cannot run for public office for five years.

Last week, Helen Herbert came to the tribe’s ethics Office and admitted she had defrauded the chapter.

She too was on the governing council. She agreed to reimburse the chapter $10,000 by paying $200 a month to the Ethics Office.

That still leaves the top three chapter officials facing hearings.

Robert Yazzie, council vice president, was scheduled to go before OHA on Oct. 20. He is accused of illegally taking $20,180.

Council President Max Goldtooth is scheduled to have a hearing Nov. 9 on charges of misappropriating $17,200.

The hearing for Secretary-Treasurer Charlene Nez, who is accused of taking $26,668, is scheduled Nov. 30.

All five are accused of giving themselves illegal bonuses for doing ordinary chapter business. For example, each got a $3,000 Christmas bonus as well as anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for signing ordinary resolutions approved by the chapter.

The charges filed by the Ethics Office said the officials also violated tribal law by failing to present the payments for approval by chapter members before the checks were issued

Forgotten People/WWU Participatory Mapping Project wins runner-up in a EPA Apps for Environment Challenge

http://myweb.students.wwu.edu/%7Esabier/ForgottenPeople/ Please check it out: Forgotten People/WWU Participatory Mapping Project wins runner-up in a EPA Apps for Environment Challenge thanks to Robert Sabie and Professor Troy Abel, Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University. The interactive maps shows the proximity of abandoned uranium mines to water sources in the Navajo Nation, a proposed uranium haul route through the Navajo Nation. If you click on the icon on the header, you can search the various layers. The EJ Participatory Mapping app will be recognized at the Apps for the Environment Forum on November 8, 2011 in Arlington, VA www.epa.gov/appsfortheenvironment/forum.htm

One More Reason to Oppose Keystone XL Pipeline: Questions about State Department Handling of Review

10/28/2011 Frances Beinecke’s Blog: One More Reason to Oppose Keystone XL Pipeline: Questions about State Department Handling of Review: Today I joined several environmental leaders in calling for the State Department to conduct an investigation into the department’s handling of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. More than a dozen members of Congress also requested an inquiry into potential conflicts of interest.

Our colleagues at Friends of the Earth examined relevant documents and found that TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, was allowed to screen the companies bidding to do the project’s environmental impact study; the company that was chosen listed TransCanada as a “major client.” It also does business for many of the same oil companies that stand to benefit from the pipeline.

Meanwhile, State Department officials coached TransCanada on messaging—and seemed to be in cahoots with them on skirting safety protections.  From the start, they have shown a disposition towards the pipeline proponents at the expense of public – exemplified by the Secretary’s comments a year ago that she was “inclined” to approve it.

The Keystone XL pipeline is a massive, destructive proposal and the more we learn about it, the more objections we have. Now those concerned about integrity in government are joining the many other Americans opposed to this dangerous project.

Citizens alarmed by climate change do not want the Keystone XL pipeline to lock America into decades of one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet.

Farmers, ranchers, and businesspeople living along Keystone XL’s route do not want to put their communities, rangeland, and water supply at risk of pipeline eruptions.

And national security experts are speaking out about the danger of deepening America’s fossil fuel addiction with tar sands oil. Retired Army Brigadier General Steven M. Anderson wrote a powerful piece in The Hill that the pipeline the “will comfort our enemies.” He refutes TransCanada’s claims that the pipeline will enhance America’s national security and says:

This pipeline would move dirty oil from Canada to refineries in Texas and would set back our renewable energy efforts for at least two decades, much to our enemies’ delight.

Whose assessment of national security would you believe: The foreign oil company that stands to profit by exporting tar sands oil to Asia and Europe? Or the American general who served as the military’s senior logistician in Iraq in 2006 and 2007?

The drumbeat of opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is growing louder and louder. Citizens are asking their elected officials about it at town hall meetings, and President Obama has been met with protests and questions from a range of constituents – from high donors to students as he travels the country.

You can make your protest heard by signing up for the November 6 event outside the White House here or by sending a message President Obama at www.StopTar.org.

10/25/2011 Fallout forensics hike radiation toll: Global data on Fukushima challenge Japanese estimates

The Fukushima accident led to mass evacuations from nearby towns such as Minamisoma. AP Photo/S. Ponomarev: 10/25/2011 Fallout forensics hike radiation toll Published online: Global data on Fukushima challenge Japanese estimates. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study1 that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The study also suggests that, contrary to government claims, pools used to store spent nuclear fuel played a significant part in the release of the long-lived environmental contaminant caesium-137, which could have been prevented by prompt action. The analysis has been posted online for open peer review by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Andreas Stohl, an atmospheric scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller, who led the research, believes that the analysis is the most comprehensive effort yet to understand how much radiation was released from Fukushima Daiichi. “It’s a very valuable contribution,” says Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric modeller with the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm, who was not involved with the study.

The reconstruction relies on data from dozens of radiation monitoring stations in Japan and around the world. Many are part of a global network to watch for tests of nuclear weapons that is run by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna. The scientists added data from independent stations in Canada, Japan and Europe, and then combined those with large European and American caches of global meteorological data.

Stohl cautions that the resulting model is far from perfect. Measurements were scarce in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident, and some monitoring posts were too contaminated by radioactivity to provide reliable data. More importantly, exactly what happened inside the reactors — a crucial part of understanding what they emitted — remains a mystery that may never be solved. “If you look at the estimates for Chernobyl, you still have a large uncertainty 25 years later,” says Stohl.

Nevertheless, the study provides a sweeping view of the accident. “They really took a global view and used all the data available,” says De Geer.

Challenging numbers

Japanese investigators had already developed a detailed timeline of events following the 11 March earthquake that precipitated the disaster. Hours after the quake rocked the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the tsunami arrived, knocking out crucial diesel back-up generators designed to cool the reactors in an emergency. Within days, the three reactors operating at the time of the accident overheated and released hydrogen gas, leading to massive explosions. Radioactive fuel recently removed from a fourth reactor was being held in a storage pool at the time of the quake, and on 14 March the pool overheated, possibly sparking fires in the building over the next few days.

But accounting for the radiation that came from the plants has proved much harder than reconstructing this chain of events. The latest report from the Japanese government, published in June, says that the plant released 1.5 × 1016 bequerels of caesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half-life that is responsible for most of the long-term contamination from the plant2. A far larger amount of xenon-133, 1.1 × 1019 Bq, was released, according to official government estimates.

The new study challenges those numbers. On the basis of its reconstructions, the team claims that the accident released around 1.7 × 1019 Bq of xenon-133, greater than the estimated total radioactive release of 1.4 × 1019 Bq from Chernobyl. The fact that three reactors exploded in the Fukushima accident accounts for the huge xenon tally, says De Geer.

Xenon-133 does not pose serious health risks because it is not absorbed by the body or the environment. Caesium-137 fallout, however, is a much greater concern because it will linger in the environment for decades. The new model shows that Fukushima released 3.5 × 1016 Bq caesium-137, roughly twice the official government figure, and half the release from Chernobyl. The higher number is obviously worrying, says De Geer, although ongoing ground surveys are the only way to truly establish the public-health risk.

Stohl believes that the discrepancy between the team’s results and those of the Japanese government can be partly explained by the larger data set used. Japanese estimates rely primarily on data from monitoring posts inside Japan3, which never recorded the large quantities of radioactivity that blew out over the Pacific Ocean, and eventually reached North America and Europe. “Taking account of the radiation that has drifted out to the Pacific is essential for getting a real picture of the size and character of the accident,” says Tomoya Yamauchi, a radiation physicist at Kobe University who has been measuring radioisotope contamination in soil around Fukushima.

Stohl adds that he is sympathetic to the Japanese teams responsible for the official estimate. “They wanted to get something out quickly,” he says. The differences between the two studies may seem large, notes Yukio Hayakawa, a volcanologist at Gunma University who has also modelled the accident, but uncertainties in the models mean that the estimates are actually quite similar.

The new analysis also claims that the spent fuel being stored in the unit 4 pool emitted copious quantities of caesium-137. Japanese officials have maintained that virtually no radioactivity leaked from the pool. Yet Stohl’s model clearly shows that dousing the pool with water caused the plant’s caesium-137 emissions to drop markedly (see ‘Radiation crisis’). The finding implies that much of the fallout could have been prevented by flooding the pool earlier.

The Japanese authorities continue to maintain that the spent fuel was not a significant source of contamination, because the pool itself did not seem to suffer major damage. “I think the release from unit 4 is not important,” says Masamichi Chino, a scientist with the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority in Ibaraki, who helped to develop the Japanese official estimate. But De Geer says the new analysis implicating the fuel pool “looks convincing”.

The latest analysis also presents evidence that xenon-133 began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, and before the tsunami swamped the area. This implies that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause damage at the plant.

The Japanese government’s report has already acknowledged that the shaking at Fukushima Daiichi exceeded the plant’s design specifications. Anti-nuclear activists have long been concerned that the government has failed to adequately address geological hazards when licensing nuclear plants (see Nature 448, 392–393; 2007), and the whiff of xenon could prompt a major rethink of reactor safety assessments, says Yamauchi.

The model also shows that the accident could easily have had a much more devastating impact on the people of Tokyo. In the first days after the accident the wind was blowing out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March it turned back towards shore, bringing clouds of radioactive caesium-137 over a huge swathe of the country (see ‘Radioisotope reconstruction’). Where precipitation fell, along the country’s central mountain ranges and to the northwest of the plant, higher levels of radioactivity were later recorded in the soil; thankfully, the capital and other densely populated areas had dry weather. “There was a period when quite a high concentration went over Tokyo, but it didn’t rain,” says Stohl. “It could have been much worse.”

Additional reporting by David Cyranoski and Rina Nozawa.

10/27/2011 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson: Keystone conversation is 'awesome'

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson still offers some hope for a clean future. This from the Hill “Politico”. 10/27/2011 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson: Keystone conversation is ‘awesome’ By Erica Martinson: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on Thursday took an artful dodge when asked by a student activist about the Keystone XL pipeline, praising civic engagement and promising that the EPA will “do its job.” “People ask me all the time, ‘What about this whole issue?’ To me, it’s awesome; it’s awesome that we’re having this conversation in this country. This should be a moment where we’re having a big conversation,” she said.

But, Jackson added a cautionary note: “This is a pipeline that cuts our country literally in half.” Jackson addressed a Sierra Club meeting of national campus activists, most of whom are focused on shutting down coal-fired power plants on their campuses and on other similar issues.

One student, Jarymar Arana from Texas — who plans to bring up the pipeline again this afternoon when the students visit the White House — thanked the administrator for its previous “robust review” of the pipeline and asked “if you will continue to stand up for the communities affected by Keystone XL.”

“Yes, that’s our job,” Jackson said, speaking of EPA’s obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to review environmental impact statements.

But, she noted, “Everyone, I think, knows here that the actual decision-makers are the State Department.”

Jackson said the EPA is almost finished with its final comments on the pipeline, but declined to tell reporters when they would be completed.

She noted President Barack Obama’s brief mention Wednesday of the controversy, telling the activists that “he’s certainly heard your voices and is very much aware of the concerns you have raised.”

Arana told POLITICO that Sierra Club and its student activists feel that EPA’s last comments filed on the Keystone XL pipeline essentially rejected the project, and they want to “build on that momentum and ask that they do it again.”

Arana is particularly concerned about family in Brownsville, Texas, near the Gulf Coast, where there may be increased demand for refineries once the pipeline is built, and said she and other activists are concerned about the disproportionate impact on the Hispanic community that could come from the pipeline.

Most of the students at the Sierra Club event at Howard University this morning were focused on coal.

Students at the event said that 17 student groups thus far have won campaigns to retire coal-fired power plants on campus and that last month students held more than 100 events nationwide asking for a transition off of coal at their schools.

Jackson used the event to warn students about congressional assaults on a slew of rules and defend the agency’s recent decisions. “We’re not going to use the current economic crisis to roll back the health and safety people have come to rely on for a decade. … It would be tragic if we took one step forward, and we end up taking four or five steps back, “she said.

About environmental laws, she added: “None of them are safe right now.”

“We will … continue to face vote after vote to knock these rules down,” Jackson said. “They’re threatening more votes … against the Clean Air Act. Against the Clean Water Act … of course now we hear that the EPA is the enemy.”

She called out an unnamed lawmaker in her speech, noting, “I read a really interesting headline today … an elected official, I won’t say which one, said he needs to protect coal ash from regulation. I thought — ‘I thought the job was to protect us from coal ash!’ One of the reason that we have regulations and standards was to protect we the people.”

It appears Jackson was referring to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and a story in The Hill.

Jackson specifically defended the agency’s agreement with automakers to up standards to 55 miles per gallon by 2025, though she warned students, “There will be an effort to reverse it. … And it will probably be led by someone from California.” (Rep. Darrell Issa has been a leading critic of the deal.)

Jackson also spoke voraciously of the agency’s upcoming mercury and air toxics standards, due out Dec. 16 after environmental litigants recently granted a one-month extension.

One of the reasons it’s so important to meet the standards, Jackson told the students, is that there are many coal plants that are 40, 50, 60 years old. “We actually have one, I think, approaching 70 years old. And in their entire history … they’ve never found the time, or the reason, to clean up their act.”

10/27/2011 Forgotten People/WWU EJ Participatory Mapping app wins RunnerUp in EPA Apps for Environment Challenge

Forgotten People and Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University (WWU) EJ Participatory Mapping app wins Runner-Up in EPA Apps for Environment Challenge. The video demonstrates how to use the interactive map showing the proximity of abandoned uranium mines to water sources on the Navajo Nation and a proposed uranium haul route through the Navajo Nation. Here is a live link to the map http://www.wwu.edu/huxley/spatial/fppm/ . If you click on the icon on the header, you can search the various layers. The EJ Participatory Mapping app will be recognized at the Apps for the Environment Forum www.epa.gov/appsfortheenvironment/forum.html on November 8, 2011 in Arlington, VA

10/23/2011 Albuquerque Journal: Battle Over San Juan

The 1,798-megawatt coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington has been ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to install more pollution controls to cut emissions that cause haze. The mine that supplies the plant’s coal, operated by the San Juan Coal Company, can be seen in the background. Photo Credit – Richard Pipes/Journal 10/23/2011 Albuquerque Journal: Battle Over San Juan By Michael Hartranft / Journal Staff Writer: It’s called selective catalytic reduction — a million-dollar term for pollution control if ever there was one. Make that hundreds of millions of dollars in the case of the giant, coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, its owners and the consumers who use the electricity it generates.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 office says SCR is the most cost-effective way — the agency estimates the cost at $345 million — to retrofit San Juan to cut pollutants that reduce visibility in national parks and wilderness areas and contribute to regional haze, as required by the Clean Air Act. It has given PNM and the other owners of the plant five years to complete the installation.

PNM argues that the federal agency’s prescription for San Juan would cost a lot more than the EPA claims it would — hitting New Mexico customers in the pocketbook — and says it can get satisfactory results for a lot less money.

The electric utility says the price tag for the EPA plan will approach $750 million, or more, causing up to an initial $85-a-year hit on the average residential customer’s bill to pay for PNM’s share of the project. It owns about 46 percent of San Juan, and the electricity generated there serves about 500,000 PNM customers.

Regardless of who is right on the cost estimate, this much is clear: The utility’s customers will pick up the tab, because the cost would be factored into rates.

Less costly plan

PNM says a less costly retrofit would achieve satisfactory results — nearly indistinguishable to the human eye. The cost of an EPA-required SCR system would be in addition to a $320 million environmental upgrade completed at the plant two years ago.

The EPA issued its ruling in August, and, on Sept. 16, PNM appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It also asked the EPA to stay the new rule until the court makes a decision.

“EPA’s aggressive, five-year compliance time frame means that without a stay, we will be forced to begin spending enormous sums of money without knowing if EPA’s decision will stand,” said Pat Themig, PNM vice president for generation.

The company claims that if it takes a year for a court ruling, it will already have spent $43.6 million on early design and construction.

The EPA, which stepped in with a plan when the state didn’t meet the deadline to submit its own, contends that SCR would cut one of the main haze-causing emissions, nitrogen oxide, by more than 80 percent — reducing visibility impacts by 50 percent in 16 Class 1 park and wilderness areas in four states affected by San Juan. The agency says it will also result in healthier air.

Environmental groups across the region hailed the EPA ruling.

“The EPA took a bold and necessary stand to protect people and businesses from coal’s toxic pollution,” said Bill Corcoran of the Sierra Club.

About coal itself

In some respects, the fight is over the use of coal itself. The Obama administration and some environmental groups have made no secret of their dislike for coal-fired generation of electricity, which tends to be much cheaper than “green” alternatives.

Gov. Susana Martinez said she supports developing alternative energy technology and making it a bigger part of the state’s overall energy portfolio. But the EPA decision is “detrimental” to New Mexico, she told the Journal in an email last week.

“In recent months, even President Obama has conceded that onerous environmental regulations can place a tremendous financial burden on states, businesses and families — and yet the EPA continues to try to impose these new, stifling regulations,” she said.

PNM says federal regulators combined the requirements of two separate rules — regional haze and cross-state pollution — into one to meet an Aug. 5 deadline set in a consent decree signed with WildEarth Guardians that applied only to cross-state pollution.

In doing so, it argues, the EPA did not give proper deference to a state plan for regional haze adopted in June by the Martinez-appointed Environmental Improvement Board, which proposed an alternative technology.

It contends the differences in visibility improvements between that technology — selective noncatalytic reduction — and SCR would barely be perceptible to the human eye.

The price tag for SNCR would be much lower, however — an estimated $77 million and about a $12-a-year impact on ratepayers.

San Juan employs about 400 people, with the adjacent San Juan Coal Mine that supplies the fuel providing jobs for another 500. The first two generating units were built about 40 years ago, and the company expects to keep the plant going for at least another 40.

It’s about visibility

“Our emissions are within the national ambient air quality standards for human health,” said Maureen Gannon, executive director of environmental services for PNM. “This is about visibility, about what the human eye can see. We believe the EPA has gone far over what the regulation was intended to do.”

The EPA is standing by its decision but says it will review the state’s plan and change its analysis if new information warrants.

However, it says an evaluation of the state-proposed SNCR technology showed it would achieve far less reduction in pollution and less visibility improvement.

The regional haze rule stems from a Clean Air Act provision that requires states to improve visibility in 159 Class 1 national parks and wilderness areas, such as the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, Bandelier National Monument and 13 other sites in the New Mexico region.

The goal is to restore visibility by 2064 to what it would have been without human impact.

The rule required states to adopt implementation plans addressing the main pollutants that cause haze and to establish reasonable progress goals.

States were also required to evaluate best available retrofit technologies for older, large stationary sources that might be affecting Class 1 sites.

In 2006, the New Mexico Environment Department requested a best available retrofit analysis at San Juan to determine whether additional controls might be needed to comply.

PNM contended that existing controls at the plant — which was undergoing a $320 million upgrade under a 2005 consent decree to settle emissions violations between 2001 and 2003 — would meet the requirements.

Last year, though it was supposed to have submitted a plan to EPA by January 2009, the New Mexico Environment Department under then-Gov. Bill Richardson proposed SCR as the best available technology to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at San Juan. It later withdrew the plan, in part because of cost concerns raised by PNM.

EPA steps in

The EPA, which had set a January 2011 deadline to issue a plan if the state didn’t meet the 2009 deadline, stepped in with its own proposal in December, starting the hearing and public review process that culminated with the rule in August. New Mexico became the first state to have a federal plan imposed on it for haze.

Calling San Juan one of the nation’s largest sources of nitrogen oxide — 18,400 tons a year, according to the EPA — the federal agency says its plan would cut those emissions by more than 80 percent.

PNM contends the recent upgrade cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 44 percent — from 27,500 tons to 15,300 tons a year — and that its proposed fix would cut it by an additional 30 percent a year. The company says sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury were also significantly reduced in the upgrade.

The EPA said it was bound by the haze rule to evaluate additional technologies and it found SCR the most cost effective. The evaluation also included selective noncatalytic reduction.

The nitrogen oxide limit set at San Juan was based on an assessment of the best-performing coal plants with SCR, Region 6 regional haze coordinator Joe Kordzi said.

“We found there were units that were consistently able to meet this emission limit that were similar to the ones PNM is operating at the San Juan station,” he said.

Kordzi said that, in terms of visibility, the SCR technology would improve it noticeably, while “SNCR hardly made any difference at all.” PNM disagrees and says improvements with SCR might not be visible to the naked eye.

The agency made some key changes based on PNM’s comments during the review process, Kordzi said, including giving owners five years, instead of three, to comply. It agreed to up its original cost estimate from $229 million to $345 million, largely due to issues raised by PNM, although that’s still nowhere near the $750 million PNM says the cost will be.

The EPA contends PNM and its consultant, Black & Veatch, overestimated numerous cost items.

The agency, among other things, said PNM failed to follow the EPA’s cost control manual, consistently used assumptions “at the upper end of the range” for key components, and included unnecessary equipment.

PNM’s cost position

PNM, however, says the EPA omitted critical elements, including $71 million in annual operating expense, as well as major capital costs. Those costs, it says, include $73 million-plus for added auxiliary power equipment, $78 million in lost generation due to extended outages, $126 million for an SCR bypass to protect the equipment during startup, and $78 million in interest during construction.

Black & Veatch’s original estimate was based on a best available retrofit analysis in 2007. Gannon concedes it wasn’t a “detailed engineering estimate,” but said the company is an architect/engineering firm that designs and builds SCRs and is familiar with construction complexities at San Juan — which include installing equipment 200 feet above the plant floor in already congested space.

“And we had some concern, maybe there is some truth to this concern about overestimation,” Gannon said. “So now we’ve had another company (Sargent & Lundy) go out — and they’re at $741 million.”

N.M.’s counteroffer

Not long after Gov. Martinez took office, the state Environment Department under her new secretary, F. David Martin, proposed a PNM-backed plan calling for SNCR, which it said would cost an estimated $77 million to install and would achieve a nitrogen oxide limit it believed would comply with the rule.

Gannon said EPA guidelines for making best available retrofit determinations require agencies to take into account cost, environmental impacts, existing pollution controls, remaining life of the source and degree of improvement that might result.

“When you use that five-factor path, the state plan meets that in terms of additional controls, costs and it does result in some visibility improvements, although you may not be able to see it,” Gannon said. “But you probably won’t be able to see SCR either.”

PNM’s modeling showed that the EPA’s proposed SCR technology would make noticeable visibility improvements at only one of the 16 areas, Mesa Verde.

The company contends the EPA used an antiquated version of the same model it used, in showing visible improvement in nine areas.

Visible differences

“There are some chemistry assumptions we don’t agree with,” Gannon said. “We actually brought in the developer of the model to do some additional modeling, and he, in essence, concurred with the result we were getting.”

She said that SNCR represents reasonable progress toward the Clean Air Act’s goal and that the state could come back in five years and require the plant to install SCR if it deems it necessary.

“For EPA to ask us to do this enormous project in such a short period of time does not make sense from a regulatory perspective,” she said.

Both PNM and the EPA are getting sideline support.

Carla Sonntag, executive director of the New Mexico Utility Shareholders Alliance, a group that represents 12,000 shareholders of gas and electric utilities, is chiefly concerned about the rule’s impact on ratepayers, particularly those with lower incomes.

“If there was a significant difference between the state plan and the EPA, that would be one thing to consider, but there’s really not. It’s negligible,” she said. “But the cost is exorbitant, and that’s going to go back into rates. We feel it’s just unjustified.”

The Sierra Club’s David Van Winkle, though, contends that PNM’s cost estimate is a scare tactic and that the rule should be a trigger point for PNM to rethink its continued investments in coal-fired power, still its major energy source.

“Just from a risk standpoint, you’d think you’d want to diversify … so that you’re not so heavily dependent on that one resource in an area that is heavily regulated,” Van Winkle said.

He allowed that the rule is a visibility regulation.

“But, it’s true that nitrogen oxide is a health problem, so why are we splitting hairs?” he asked.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

10/25/2011 Durango Herald: EPA chief keeps up the pressure – Jackson touts approach to replace coal with natural-gas generators

10/25/2011 Durango Herald: EPA chief keeps up the pressure – Jackson touts approach to replace coal with natural-gas generators By Joe Hanel Herald Staff Writer: DENVER – Regulators will continue to push for cleanups at coal power plants in the Four Corners despite a rough economy, the Obama administration’s top environmental official said Monday. Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, visited Denver to tout the state’s approach to retiring coal plants and replacing them with natural gas-powered generators. Jackson’s agency in 2009 blocked a permit for the proposed Desert Rock coal power plant in Northwest New Mexico, and it is requiring better pollution-control equipment on existing power plants.

“The problem with many plants that we’re facing today is that they have not in good economic times invested in pollution control technologies. And now they are sort of gasping on the very end of life support to keep running. But the people who are paying the price are these children and our elderly people who have respiratory diseases,” Jackson said when asked about the New Mexico plants.

Jackson noted that President Barack Obama has pledged that his administration will not reduce environmental rules because the economy is dragging.

The EPA will finalize by Dec. 16 a rule limiting mercury pollution from power plants, Jackson said.

Jackson was in town to participate in a panel discussion on Colorado’s “Clean Air Clean Jobs” Act, a 2010 bill that calls for replacing Denver-area coal plants with natural-gas plants.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, was one of the act’s prime sponsors, along with former Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus, who Roberts beat in the 2010 election.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter, the law’s biggest champion, moderated the discussion in front of a friendly crowd at National Jewish Health, a respiratory hospital.

The act brought together a new coalition of natural-gas companies and environmentalists, but it caused divisions in traditional alliances. Local environmentalists opposed expanded gas drilling, and Republicans split between a faction supporting coal companies and one backing gas drillers.

Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the political splinters posed a challenge.

“Another challenge was the aggression and persistence of the opposition, and that continues to this day. We have been surprised at the continuous spread of misinformation about the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act and also about the natural-gas industry,” Schuller said.

Jackson applauded the act and said the same kind of alliance could be forged on a national level.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

10/26/2011 Environmental Groups Support Haze Reduction

10/26/2011 Indian Country Today: Environmental Groups Support Haze Reduction By Carol Berry: The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has approved a motion by several environmental groups to intervene in a lawsuit involving mandated pollution controls at the 2,040-megawatt San Juan Generating Station. The New Mexico plant is believed to be the first facility required to adhere to a regional haze program, according to an environmental spokesman. The 1999 regional haze program under the Clean Air Act is designed to protect areas of “great scenic importance”—certain national parks, wilderness areas, national memorials and international parks—from manmade air pollution.

“Visibility impairment by air pollution occurs virtually all the time at most national park and wilderness area monitoring stations,” according to the Federal Register, which also notes that the visibility problem “is caused primarily by emission into the atmosphere of (sulfur dioxide), oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter, especially fine particulate matter, from inadequately controlled sources.”

“Under the Clean Air Act, the idea was that older, antiquated, coal plants were going to be decommissioned,” but that did not happen at the station, said Mike Eisenfeld, energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. Instead, PNM, New Mexico’s largest electricity provider, filed for an extension of the station’s present lifespan until 2053, he added.

Besides the Alliance, groups seeking to intervene include Dine’ Citizens against Ruining Our Environment (Dine’ CARE), Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association and New Energy Economy.

Sixteen National Parks or other protected historic and scenic areas are within the area affected by haze from the station and other area power plants, with particular concern for air quality at Mesa Verde National Park, only 35 or 40 miles to the north, Eisenfeld said.

Some concerns of area residents center on health effects as well as haze reduction in National Parks and other areas.

“The Navajo people living in the area of San Juan County and the Four Corners area are deeply impacted by the pollution, the haze—we’ve lived there on our ancestral lands forever, and we’ll always be there, said Anna M. Frazier, a spokesperson for Dine’ CARE. “But pollution has a great impact on our health and has a terrible impact on the vegetation—the herbs for healing,” she said, explaining that people now have to go to the mountains to gather plants that once were closer at hand.

“There used to be concern only for older people being affected, but now younger people and children have asthma and hospital records show that,” she said of the station, which is operated by the New Mexico Environment Department to meet EPA mandates, whose antipollution plan for the station is the issue in litigation.

Aesthetic and health concerns aside, PNM “is trying to portray it (upgrade cost) as unfair, like Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Generating Station and other 50-year-old facility costs to upgrade, which they’re saying is $1 billion. They say they should be able to have a less-effective technical ‘fix,’” Eisenfeld said, “and we’re saying that’s not good enough.”

Although catalytic emission controls on the station are estimated to cost $750 million to $1 billion, controls already installed remove some of the pollutants before they are released from the stack, according to EPA, so that costs would be reduced.

The station, which “continues to be one of the highest emitters of nitrous oxide” is one of the “huge, polluting facilities (that) deter economic development,” Eisenfeld said.

Although the station employs some 400 workers, he said he believes that if it completed the emission control fix, “it would create more jobs.”

Eisenfeld said the increase in employment would be from workers hired to clean up the plant and to install the system that would cut pollution through selective catalytic reduction. He didn’t have estimates for the increase in workers.

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/10/environmental-groups-support-haze-reduction/