Burning Coal: The Black Mesa Damage

The ever-increasing pollution from Black Mesa coal-fired power plants causes massive damage to the environment and the people of the southwestern states.

| March/April 1971

Soft blue smoke rises from a Navajo sheep camp as the sun spreads a gold-red glow across this treeless, arroyo-cut land of tumbleweed and sage. Shiprock—home of ancient monsters—lies to the west. The monsters are not all dead: Over a hill to the east, great columns of smoke belch—seemingly—from the heart of the earth. The sky turns black and a heavy cloud of poisoned air hangs over the land of the Navajo.

The old ones remember when they could see the sacred mountains of the north—snowcapped, in Colorado—every day. They remember, too, when water ran pure in the San Juan River and the land was free and beautiful. Today the water is contaminated by industrial waste and the land is scarred by transmission lines.

The southwest, where the Spanish first wrought ecological havoc with the introduction of sheep, is again invaded. This time, big-city utility companies—seeking fresh and far-away fuel sources—are hastening the destruction of land, air, water and the culture of the people who have inhabited this area for millenniums.

The clean air and water, once the primary economic asset of the southwestern states, is becoming a dwindling resource thanks largely to two coal-fired power plants now in operation. One—the Four Corners generating station near Farmington, N.M.—spews out more particulate matter from its stacks (320 tons daily) than all the polluters of New York and Los Angeles combined. It's the single largest source of pollution in the southwest and one satellite photograph shows a plume from the plant covering 10,000 square miles. There is no excuse for this: The operators of the station, Arizona Public Service Co., failed to purchase and install the pollution control equipment required by the contract.

Particulate matter is only the visual aspect of air pollution. Coal-fired power plants also emit oxides of nitrogen and sulfur—invisible, but more serious—that cause damage to plant, animal and human life. The Mohave power plant, the second major generating station in the southwest, burns low-grade Black Mesa coal and is estimated to produce 65 times as much sulfur dioxide and 86 times more nitrogen dioxide than permitted by the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District.

And the worst is yet to come. The Four Corners and Mohave plants are only the first two of six major coal-fired electrical generating stations—Four Corners, Mohave, Page, Huntington Canyon, Kaiparowits and San Juan—planned by Western Energy Supply and Transmission, a 23-company utility consortium. WEST also expects to establish many smaller power plants throughout the region. The southwest is to be covered by a cloud of noxious gases.

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