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
“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
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.