As Navajo Generating Station Spews Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas) into the Air, Downwind There isn't a Chuckle
The Navajo Generating Station (NGS), near Page, Arizona provides the electrical energy necessary to operate the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Thus, coal-fired power produced by NGS in the Upper Colorado River Basin enables Arizona’s CAP water delivery system to operate in the Lower Colorado River Basin.
As a byproduct of burning eight-million tons of Black Mesa coal each year, NGS currently sells about 500,000 tons of flyash to concrete block manufacturers. Land filled on site is an undocumented volume of scrubber byproducts, including bottom ash and gypsum. The remaining combustion gasses and solids enter into the atmosphere via three 775 ft. tall flue gas stacks.
According to EPA spokesperson Rusty Harris-Bishop, the Navajo Generating Station is one of the largest sources of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions in the country. When processed for medical purposes, nitrous oxide becomes the benign sounding anesthetic, “laughing gas”. When drag racers inject N2O into internal combustion engines, it acts as an oxidant, offering additional power and speed.
After departing the flue gas stacks of coal-fired plants like NGS, no one knows the effects of N2O on lifeforms downwind. With an atmospheric lifespan of 120-years, the environmental effects of N2O may last longer than any human lifespan. One wag asked, "Are the clouds of laughing gas emanating from NGS part of a scheme designed to keep nearby Navajo and Hopi tribes pacified?"
If the Bashar Assad regime in Syria were to conduct widespread dispersal of nitrous oxide (N2O) gas among the people of Syria, would the U.S. object, calling it a war crime? Such is currently the lot of anyone living in the air shed downwind of NGS or other coal-fired plants within the Four Corners country. If the nitrous oxide emissions dissipate quickly, over a wide area, war crime questions may remain moot. Only with chemical-gas testing on the reservation shall we understand the effects of long-term exposure to N2O and other emitted gasses. Unless changed, this complex set of environmental hazards will operate as usual. New cases of Black Lung Disease will surely continue among current and former Black Mesa miners.
Earlier studies found that NGS alone caused between two and seven percent of airborne winter haze downwind at the Grand Canyon. Not only does NGS siphon vast amounts of water from Lake Powell, its heat-island effect increases evaporation of the remaining lake water. Heat and greenhouse gasses emitted from the NGS stacks drive cool air and moisture away from the area. As part of an environmental death spiral, NGS directly robs CAP of what it needs most, which is an adequate water supply downstream.
Hydrologists, utilities spokespeople and federal regulators offer only lip service regarding interdependency between the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins. Collectively, they have yet to admit that diminished input and too many outputs may soon drain the greater Colorado River watershed. Only when officials admit that there is a collective shortage shall they find better uses for our resources, including earth, water and fire.
In 2009, I drove past the Peabody Coal Company Access Road on U.S. Highway 160. There, a backlit sign featured the words, “Peabody Western Coal Company” and “Black Mesa Complex”. In recent years, plant owners at nearby Navajo Generation Station (NGS) and the Navajo Nation gave Peabody Energy a twenty-five year lease extension. That agreement yoked the Navajo and Hopi Nations to an environmentally destructive course. When some Navajo and Hopi threatened to shut down the Black Mesa Complex, Peabody Energy "doubled down", raising their annual royalty fee for Black Mesa coal from $34.4 Million to $42 million. Over Hopi Nation objections, the twenty-two percent increase in royalties was enough to secure Navajo Nation agreement.
No one knows how much profit Peabody Energy will reap from their continued strip mining of Black Mesa, but it will be orders of magnitude larger than any royalty fees paid. Succumbing to what some call a meager financial incentive, the Navajo Nation traded the health of its people for the benefits of Old Energy. In their marketing campaign, Peabody and the Navajo Nation raised the prospect of continued employment for the Navajo and Hopi workers. Skeptics say that strip-mine-jobs cause more health and environmental harm than any economic benefit that they may provide.
As the saying goes, “Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it”. In post-1984 America, companies that hide their history shall gain little benefit from their deceit. Since 2009, Peabody Energy has removed all references to “Peabody Western Coal Company” and “Black Mesa Complex” from their corporate communications. In line with their expunging of the historical record, Peabody Energy also removed all “Black Mesa Complex” informational signage from U.S. Highway 160. Under their current marketing scheme, Peabody Energy applies the innocuous moniker, “Kayenta Mine” to the largest strip mine in the West.
Out of sight and out of mind is where Peabody Energy wants their dirty little secret to lie. Luckily, for the company, destruction caused by their operation lies unseen behind the ridge of Black Mesa. Only with satellite photography can we see the extent environmental destruction occurring at Black Mesa. Despite Peabody Energy’s efforts to hide their mining operations, gray trails of effluvium lead down the canyons from the area. At the lower end of newly deepened gulches, that “gray matter” turns and runs north toward Kayenta. Even if the mines were to close today, the deep scars on Black Mesa would take several geological epochs to heal.
In a community minded effort, NGS and its owner, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) are now extending electrical power to sixty-two homes in the area surrounding LeChee, Arizona. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population at LeChee is ninety-eight percent Native American. Located less than two miles from NGS, many of LeChee's residents work either at the plant or as service workers in nearby Page, Arizona. With a 2010 population of 1,443, LeChee had lost 163 residents over the previous decade. How many of them departed because of chronic respiratory diseases, no one knows. Prior to electrification, how many of the LeChee homes burned coal for heat?
This is Chapter 3 of a four-part series regarding coal and water in the Southwest. To read Chapter 4, please click HERE.