By Jim Mimiaga
April 17, 2017 - The U.S. Department of Interior will take another, closer look at an expansion plan for the San Juan Coal mine in northwestern New Mexico.
The Interior Department had faced a 2013 lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, which argued that environmental reviews and public comment opportunities were insufficient.
After losing similar lawsuits over coal mining approvals in Montana and Colorado, the Interior Department asked the court to grant a “voluntary remand,” effectively a request that the court rule against them and order a new environmental review. In August, the court did just that.
Last week, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement held public scoping meetings on the mine plan in Albuquerque, Towaoc, Shiprock, Farmington and Durango.
The public has until May 8 to submit comments on the plan and adjacent San Juan Generating Power Station. The power plant is owned by Public Service Co. of New Mexico, providing electricity for Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and California.
In 2008, the Office of Surface Mining was authorized by the Interior department to grant a 4,484-acre deep-lease extension for the mine to supply 36 million tons of coal to the power station through 2033.
WildEarth Guardian’s lawsuit turned that plan on its head.
“The decision for the mine approval was challenged, so we are going back and preparing an environmental impact statement with public participation,” said Marcello Calle, manager for Office for Surface Mining, during the Towaoc meeting.
The mine will continue to operate in the Deep Lease Extension Area during the environmental review process, he said.
According to the presentation, the environmental impact statement (EIS) will analyze potential impacts from mining operations and power plant emissions.
“We will be considering the effects of the mine and combustion,” Calle said. “Some of the concerns we have heard so far are health impacts due to air quality. From 2008 to now, the regulatory environment is different, the concerns are different, the combustion is different, so we will apply that to the study.”
Power Plant Upgrades
In order to comply with the federal haze regulations under the Clean Air Act, PNM negotiated a deal in 2015 to shut down two of the four generating stations at the San Juan power plant by the end of 2017. The shutdown of the two units will reduce capacity from 1,800 megawatts to 910 megawatts.
The two remaining generating stations will be upgraded with modern pollution-control technology.
The measures are expected to reduce air emission by 50 percent, including for the nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulates that produce haze and smog.
In March, PNM announced it is considering shutting down the entire San Juan Generating Station by 2022, and focus its efforts on renewable energy.
“I want to stress that this is a preliminary finding. No decisions have been made,” said PNM CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn, in a news release.
Mine Details Revealed
The mine currently provides 6 million tons of coal per year to the San Juan power plant. Beginning in January 2018, the mine will reduce supply to 2-3 million tons per year.
Coal combustion residuals from the power plant are used as fill materials in surface reclamation areas at the mine permit area.
The mine is owned and operated by the San Juan Coal Company, a subsidiary of Westmoreland Coal Co. It uses long-wall mining methods to mine a deepening 12-to-14-foot seam underground.
The mine employs about 360 people. The San Juan Generating Station, owned by Public Service of New Mexico, employs 265 people.
According to the scoping presentation, the San Juan Mine is a zero discharge facility, meaning that it does not release any wastewater into water bodies regulated by the Clean Water Act.
The mine uses evaporation ponds to manage storm water and runoff from surface facilities, including coal stockpiles. It has a network of surface and groundwater monitoring stations, including 31 monitoring wells. Stevens Arroyo flows through the Deep Lease Extension area and is monitored for water quality.
The area around the mine and power station is rural with agricultural uses.
Calle said the agency will be researching where the homes and water wells are to evaluate potential impacts.
Within the lease extension area, archaeologists have identified 93 cultural sites, which will be evaluated to determine eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places, said archaeologist Jeremy Ilif.
The partial shutdown of the power plant, and its possible closure, is a sign that energy development is moving toward renewable sources, said Shannon Hughes, an attorney with WildEarth Guardians who monitors the coal industry.
But as coal power diminishes, the workers should not be forgotten, she said.
“We hope the EIS includes health care for miners and retraining opportunities to employ them in other fields,” Hughes said. “From our perspective, it’s important to have a transition plan so we don’t leave the workers hanging out there.”
At the Towaoc meeting, the mood of the few participants was also toward renewables.
“With the sun shining here so much, it seems that there should be more solar,” said Betty Jones, of Mancos. “Why can’t this mine gradually phase in solar by installing panels on the site? A more diverse approach to energy is needed, not perpetually taking coal and causing air quality problems.”
Local residents discuss the San Juan Deep Lease Extension Mining Plan Modification Tuesday evening at a meeting in Towaoc, Colorado.