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San Juan River Fish at Risk from Coal in the Four Corners

WildEarth Guardians Puts Interior Department on Notice of Endangered Species Act Violations at San Juan Coal Mine

San Juan County, NM—WildEarth Guardians late last week put the U.S. Interior Department on notice that its approval of mining at the San Juan Coal Mine in northwestern New Mexico is threatening endangered fish in the San Juan River to the brink of extinction, violating the Endangered Species Act.

“Coal contamination is putting endangered fish in the San Juan River at great risk and with them, an entire river that tens of thousands in the Four Corners region depend upon,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  “It’s time for the Interior Department to stop putting coal over the health and well-being of this vital river system.”

The notice letter documents that the agencies’ recent approval of coal mining at the San Juan Coal Mine will lead to the release of mercury and selenium, both poisonous compounds that threaten the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, both of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.  These compounds are released directly as water pollution from the mine, as well as indirectly through air and water pollution at the San Juan Generating Station, which is fueled by the mine.

Studies have confirmed that mercury and selenium releases in the San Juan River drainage are adversely affecting the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.  A 2009 draft biological report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared in conjunction with the proposed Desert Rock coal-fired power plant (which has since been shelved) found that 64% of all Colorado pikeminnow in the San Juan River are experiencing reproductive impairment due to mercury pollution and that 40% of all razorback sucker and 15% of all pikeminnow are currently experiencing adverse effects from selenium pollution. 

The Service projected that by 2020, the 72% of all pikeminnow would experience reproductive impairment from mercury and that 84% of all sucker and 71% of all pikeminnow would experience adverse effects from selenium in the San Juan River.

Both coal mines and coal-fired power plants are identified as key sources of mercury and selenium contamination in the San Juan River.  Modeling prepared by WildEarth Guardians illustrates that mercury air pollution from the San Juan Generating Station is concentrated in the river watershed, showing that local deposition impacts are important to address.

Guardians’ letter puts the Interior Department on notice that if the Agency does not consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to solve the problem of mercury and selenium contamination, they will file suit in federal court under the Endangered Species Act.

“The Interior Department has done absolutely nothing to address the impacts of coal contamination to endangered species,” said Nichols.  “For the health of the river, the agency can’t keep turning its back on mercury and selenium pollution.”

Although the Interior Department is directly tasked with approving coal mining at the San Juan Coal Mine, the agency is obligated under the Endangered Species Act to ensure that the indirect impacts of its actions also protect imperiled species.  In this case, not only is the agency responsible for the direct impacts of coal mining, but also the indirect impacts of contamination from the San Juan Generating Station, a 1,848 megawatt coal-fired power plant operated and primarily owned by Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM.

Under the Endangered Species Act, if the Interior Department finds that its actions, whether directly or indirectly, have the potential to push the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker to extinction, they are legally prohibited from undertaking those actions.

Despite its obligations, the Interior Department has yet to address contamination impacts related to the San Juan Coal Mine and San Juan Generating Station, even though it approved new mining in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

Guardians’ notice letter comes as the environmental and health impacts of coal are increasingly under scrutiny in the Four Corners region.  Portions of both the San Juan Generating Station and the nearby coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant are slated to be retired in the coming years, largely due to air pollution concerns.  Despite these partial retirements, the owners of both power plants have expressed that they intend to keep burning coal at the remainder of the plants for many years.


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