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For Immediate Release, January 31, 2011

Contact:  Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (928) 310-6713
Anna Frazier, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, (928) 380-7697
Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance, (505) 360-8994
Brad Bartlett, Energy Minerals Law Center, (970) 247-9334

Lawsuit Filed Against Interior Department Over San Juan River Coal Pollution

FARMINGTON, N.M.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and San Juan Citizens Alliance today sued the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining for failing to protect the San Juan River ecosystem before allowing additional coal development in northwest New Mexico. This iconic western river supplies drinking water to tens of millions of people on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico and provides critical habitat to two of the West’s most endangered fish species.

“The San Juan River is the lifeblood of American canyon country, endangered fish and downstream human communities,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center. “After decades of lethal coal pollution, this lawsuit will force the federal government to finally begin treating this beautiful river as something more than an industrial sacrifice zone.”

“The agency was required to undertake consultations mandated by the Endangered Species Act in order to get a handle on the half-century-legacy of regional coal pollution — pollution which is imperiling threatened and endangered species and their habitat,” said attorney Brad Bartlett with the Energy Minerals Law Center. “This lawsuit will force the government to take a long-overdue hard look at the adverse impacts of coal development to the people and environment of the Four Corners region.” 

Coal mining, combustion at Four Corners Power Plant and the disposal of tens of millions of tons of coal-combustion waste buried at the mine in Chaco Wash, just miles from the San Juan, are putting mercury, selenium and other deadly toxins in the river.

“Business as usual is over,” said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that regional coal development is driving species in the San Juan River ecosystem towards total collapse. Hundreds of communities rely on water from the San Juan River and it is imperative that the government and industry take immediate action to eliminate these pollution sources and protect our human and ecological communities.”

The lawsuit was prompted in part by a recently obtained draft biological opinion written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the now-defunct Desert Rock Energy Project. The document shows that 64 percent of Colorado pikeminnow in the San Juan River currently exceed mercury contamination thresholds for reproductive impairment; it also shows that current selenium pollution is enough to impair the growth, reproduction or survival of 40 percent of razorback sucker offspring. Both fish are endangered. Based on scientific analyses of river pollution on fish, the draft biological opinion concluded that any more coal development in the San Juan River basin would jeopardize their survival and recovery.

“For too long coal companies in this region have been operating with impunity and no government oversight,” said Anna Frazier, coordinator of Diné CARE. “Millions of tons of toxic coal combustion waste have been dumped on our homeland, right next to the San Juan River at a point where the river enters the Navajo Nation. Continuation of coal development threatens our health, our plants and animals, and the very existence of the Diné. It’s time these companies clean up the mess they have made before they consider continuing their operations.”

To read a copy of today’s complaint, click here.
To download a copy of the draft biological opinion, click here.

The Four Corners Region near the San Juan River is home to two of the largest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States: the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station. A third coal-fired power plant — the Desert Rock Energy Project — originally proposed for the area has no permits.

BHP Billiton’s Navajo Coal Mine is located south of Fruitland, N.M. The 17,000-acre mine supplies coal to Four Corners Power Plant and is intended to feed Desert Rock Energy Project if it’s constructed. In September 2010, the Office of Surface Mining issued an operating permit to BHP without complying with the Endangered Species Act by consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that threatened and endangered species would not be further imperiled. This complex of coal facilities contributes mercury, selenium and other heavy metals into the air and water that threaten the survival and recovery of endangered species like the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, which provides BHP Billiton reported data from 2000-2007, hundreds of pounds of mercury and tens of thousands of pounds of selenium from coal-combustion waste are currently being disposed of in the Navajo Mine annually as “minefill,” making BHP the largest disposer of solid toxic waste in northwest New Mexico. BHP has been dumping this waste on-site for the past 40 years.

Mercury accumulates in rivers through emissions, deposition and runoff. Fish are exposed to mercury through diet; mercury in the water column accumulates up the food chain and primarily affects top predators such as the Colorado pikeminnow. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that affects the reproductive health of fish via portions of the brain that regulate the production and timing of sex steroids; it primarily affects survival of offspring rather than directly killing exposed individuals.

Selenium accumulates in rivers through erosion of selenium-rich soils, coal mining and energy development, and emissions and discharges from coal-fired power plants. Fish are exposed to selenium through a selenium-rich invertebrate diet. Adult fish with diets high in selenium do not experience mortality themselves; instead, they deposit excess selenium in the yolks of developing eggs. Newly hatched fry from these eggs use the yolk as an energy and protein source; it is at this stage that developmental anomalies occur. The deformities are either fatal or cause the fry to be more susceptible to predators or other environmental stressors.

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