In the West, #climate action falters on the ballot — @HighCountryNews

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From The High Country News (Kate Schimel):

In an upstairs ballroom of downtown Seattle’s Arctic Club, where polar bears and maps of the Arctic decorate the walls, volunteers and activists who campaigned for Washington’s first carbon fee waited cheerfully for election results on Tuesday night. Just after 8 p.m., a first wash of returns that had the initiative on track to pass sent ripples through the room. But as more counties reported in, the likelihood dropped. By 9 p.m., the mood turned, and clusters of supporters retreated to bars across downtown to mourn. On Wednesday morning, 56 percent of Washington voters had rejected the state’s second attempt to tax carbon emissions.

As the U.S. has stepped back from federal commitments to limit carbon pollution, activists have called on states and local governments to fill the void. It’s an approach that could prove effective, according to a report released in September by Data-Driven Yale: Existing state, local and corporate commitments could take the U.S. halfway to meeting its Paris Agreement goals, designed to limit global warming to 2 degrees and avoid the most catastrophic effects.

Tuesday night’s returns offered a mixed message on whether states have the momentum to regulate fossil fuels without federal backing. Candidates who support action on climate change won gubernatorial races in Colorado and Oregon, while in Washington, Democratic incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has backed climate initiatives in the Senate, held her seat by a comfortable margin. But ballot initiatives intended to regulate fossil fuel emissions and boost renewable energy sources fell flat.

The nation’s first carbon fee fails
Initiative 1631, which was crafted by a coalition of labor, social justice and environmental groups and tribal nations, would have taxed every metric ton of carbon produced by most of the state’s largest polluters at a rate of $15; some sectors were exempted, including fuel used in agricultural production and coal plants slated for closure. A prior initiative to tax carbon emissions while lowering other taxes and boosting low-income tax credits failed in 2016. The 2018 initiative, which would have used the funds raised by the tax to pay for climate mitigation and response, drew well-funded opposition from oil and gas interests.

The result: Projected to fail. Only three counties, Seattle’s King County, Port Townsend’s Jefferson County and the San Juan Islands, voted for passage.

Arizona’s push for renewables stalls
Proposition 127 would have required electric utilities to purchase 50 percent of their power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. It excluded nuclear power as a renewable source, which stoked fears that its passage would lead to the closure of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. A lawsuit from the state’s largest utility muddied Proposition 127’s progress to the ballot, while out-of-state money helped make it the most expensive proposition in state history. A group backed by California-based billionaire Tom Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, poured $23.2 million into efforts to pass the initiative; Arizona utilities, as well as the Navajo Nation, spent nearly $30 million to oppose it.

The result: Failed. As of Wednesday morning, 70 percent of voters had rejected the measure.

Background reading: Dark money is re-shaping Arizona’s energy fights, Elizabeth Shogren

Colorado won’t tighten fracking restrictions
A pair of dueling initiatives, Proposition 112 and Amendment 74, dealt with regulating the state’s fracking boom, which has butted up against sprawling suburbs. Proposition 112 would have required new oil and gas wells and production facilities to be built at least 2,500 feet away from schools, drinking water sources and homes, a significant increase from current set-back requirements. Amendment 74 would have required payments for any lost property values due to government action, including regulations that affect mineral rights – like Proposition 112.

The result: Both initiatives failed, leaving the state where it started on oil and gas regulations.

Background reading: The rising risks of the West’s latest gas boom, Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz

Gov. Hickenlooper joins western governors in continued commitment to uphold standards of the Clean Air and Water Acts

Mount Rainier and Seattle Skyline July 22 2017.

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today joined governors from California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington in signing a letter committing to upholding the standards set forth in the Clean Air and Water Acts, despite changes to federal standards in Washington D.C.

“We will not run from our responsibility to protect and improve clean air and water for future generations,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “We know it will take collaboration just like this to make it happen. Changes at the federal level will not distract from our goals.”

Colorado continues efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined by the state’s Colorado Climate Plan. Last week Colorado submitted comments pushing back on the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken federal auto standards. State agencies continue work on finalizing a low emissions vehicle plan by the end of the year.

In their letter, the governors wrote “Each of our states has a unique administrative and regulatory structure established to protect clean air and clean water, but we share a commitment to science-based standards that protect human health and the environment. As governors, we pledge to be diligent environmental stewards of our natural resources to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy the bounty of clean air, clean water and the highest quality of life.”

View the full letter here.

How air pollution is destroying our health — the World Health Organization @WHO

Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:

As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (e.g. stoves, lamps), the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year. The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.

Air pollution is hard to escape, no matter how rich an area you live in. It is all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

From The Guardian (Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor):

Simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more, but ‘a smog of complacency pervades the planet’, says Dr Tedros Adhanom

Air pollution is the “new tobacco”, the head of the World Health Organization has warned, saying the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more.

Over 90% of the world’s population suffers toxic air and research is increasingly revealing the profound impacts on the health of people, especially children.

“The world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”

Opinion: Stopping Climate Change Is Hopeless. Let’s Do It. #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Click through and read the whole article from The New York Times (Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones). Here’s an excerpt:

Mr. Schendler is a climate activist and businessman. Mr. Jones creates climate simulations for the nonprofit Climate Interactive.

On Monday, the world’s leading climate scientists are expected to release a report on how to protect civilization by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Given the rise already in the global temperature average, this critical goal is 50 percent more stringent than the current target of 2 degrees Celsius, which many scientists were already skeptical we could meet. So we’re going to have to really want it, and even then it will be tough.

The world would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster than has ever been achieved, and do it everywhere, for 50 years. Northern European countries reduced emissions about 4 to 5 percent per year in the 1970s. We’d need reductions of 6 to 9 percent. Every year, in every country, for half a century.

We’d need to spread the world’s best climate practices globally — like electric cars in Norway, energy efficiency in California, land protection in Costa Rica, solar and wind power in China, vegetarianism in India, bicycle use in the Netherlands.

We’d face opposition the whole way. To have a prayer of 1.5 degrees Celsius, we would need to leave most of the remaining coal, oil and gas underground, compelling the Exxon Mobils and Saudi Aramcos to forgo anticipated revenues of over $33 trillion over the next 25 years.

Left: Fossil fuel emissions 1850 to 2010 and since 2000. Right: Amount of fossil fuel emissions to keep warming under 2 C, vs. potential emissions from proven reserves. Fossil fuel companies know that they cannot compete with renewable energy v. cost. The competitive cost advantage will be advanced if the fossil fuel companies are compelled to pay a cost for their pollution.

Excitement builds about changes accelerating in energy systems — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In an old school gymnasium in Paonia that one speaker commented looked like it had been constructed during the Great Depression, 120 people gathered last week to sort out the future of energy in the 21st century.

The town in west-central Colorado is surrounded by peach and apple orchards, peaks of the West Elk Mountains looming in the background. It’s not really a tourist town, as witnessed by the fact that there’s just one motel.

Paonia. Photo credit: Allen Best

Paonia used to be a coal town. The West Elk Mine still operates just a few miles away, but the miners have been laid off in droves as giant central-station coal-fired coal plants get shut down in favor of cheaper natural gas but also renewables in more dispersed locations. In 2012, nearly 1,000 people had been employed in the local mines. By 2017, the employment had fallen to just 220.

Many key figures in Paonia and other local communities want to be at the front of that shift, not at the dirty backend. Among them is John Gavan, who semi-retired to the Paonia area after a career in technology. A member of the board of directors for the local electrical provider, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Gavan organized the conference, which is called Engage.

“We have an energy legacy, because of coal. But we now we are transitioning to a new distributed and renewable model,” he said in an interview afterwards. “We want to be sure we are economically engaged.”

Gavan believes that Delta-Montrose is one of the most aggressive electrical co-operatives in the country. A decade ago it began developing electricity using the fast-flowing waters of an agricultural canal.

Elsewhere in Colorado, a utility drew national attention last year when it announced it was planning to close two coal plants and replace the lost generation with primarily wind and solar with some battery storage. Xcel Energy said it could do this and save money for ratepayers and investors. The proposal was approved earlier this month by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Colorado is particularly blessed with a diversity of renewable resources, but the same declining prices have roiled the electrical sector across North America.

Tom Plant, the keynote speaker at Engage, painted a picture of changes being driven from the grassroots. “Congress last year introduced how many energy bills?” he asked rhetorically. None, he answered. But legislators around the country introduced 3,433 bills.

Plant, who is with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy, described the “mainstreaming of renewables.” Wind prices have declined by 67 percent in the last eight years and solar 86 percent. “This changes the economics of the entire marketplace.”

As a state legislator in 2000, Plant introduced a bill proposing a renewable portfolio standard. It got little support. So he did it again. Again, other legislators batted the idea down.

Then, in 2004 voters, bypassed the legislator, requiring Xcel to achieve 10 percent renewable generation. Xcel, which had opposed the mandate, then got to work, meeting its goals years ahead of its deadline. It then met the next, steeper renewables portfolio. It’s now at 30 percent renewables and, with the changes recently approved, by late 2025 expects to hit 55 percent renewables.

“That’s an incredible shift in such a short amount of time,” said Plant of this and other changes. Electricity, he said, has decreased 17 percent in price during the 21st century even as there has been a shift to natural gas and now to renewables.

Tom Plant via the Center for the New Energy Economy.

Plant also took a few shots at Tri-State, the wholesale supplier for several of the mountain towns, including Durango, Crested Butte, and Paonia, too. “They have the highest carbon intensity of any power provider in the country,” Plant said.

A recent report conducted by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that Tri-State could close its coal mines and still save money for members in the long run. See story.

Tri-State, for its part, points out that 30 percent of its portfolio is renewables, same as Xcel Energy now. In addition, Xcel is at 44 percent coal powered in Colorado. However, Tri-State benefits from hydroelectricity from federal dams, something not available to the investor-owned Xcel. In addition to that difference, there’s also the difference in the pace of the shift. Tri-State has added renewables, but at a far slower pace than Xcel.

Another way that utilities will add more renewables is if the power can be moved around the country better to match supplies with demands. Hence the wind of the Great Plains could be paired with the sunshine of California and the desert Southwest in places like Park City and Sun Valley. But there are roughly eight markets in the Western states currently, too small to effectively integrate renewables to maximum efficient. Ultimately, said Plant, it will happen.

Plant said that the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan—which President Donald Trump has set out to dismantle—was intended to bring everybody altogether to talk about stuff like energy markets.

“But without that federal push, the question is where will the push come from?” he said. The utilities haven’t really stepped up, at least to the level that Plant and others would like, “so the question is what will cause the utilities to step up?”

Gavan, the conference organizer, compares what is happening now in energy to the giant changes in telecommunications that began in the 1980s.

At the time, AT&T had a monopoly and, with its “baby bells” such as Mountain Bell in Colorado, resisted innovation. Phone calls were also extremely expensive. In the late 1970s, it costs 30 cents a minute to talk to somebody just 5 or 10 miles away.

For example, Colorado’s Grand County had six different prefixes, each one a long-distance call from the next. Winter Park was a long distance call from Granby, and Granby a long distance call from Grand Lake—at 30 cents a minute.

“AT&T acted exactly as Tri-State is acting today: protective, anticompetitive and punitive,” said Gavan. “That’s exactly the wrong game plan.”

The telephone monopoly, he said, had few services available and they were very expensive. Innovators foresaw many possibilities: advanced networking services, voice mail, and then exotic call-handling services of value to businesses.

Gavan was among the challengers of AT&T. In his career he was IT director for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington D.C. For 18 yeas, he was system engineer and IT director of MCI Telecommunications and later WorldCommunications after its acquisition of MCI. He owns seven patents associated with new technology.

Looking back to the 1980s, he sees many parallels between telecommunications giant AT&T and some of the big utilities of today.

“AT&T tried to throw up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock to slow the change in the telephone business model, and in the process they wound up shorting themselves. The same thing is happening here.”

Much of the conference was devoted to discussions about what those futures might look like. Nobody tried to argue that anything short of massive changes were afoot.

To see the PowerPoints presented at the conference by Plant and others, go to the Engage Delta County website.

@CSUtilities makes a commitment to #solar power

Xcel Energy’s Greater Sandhill Solar Farm north of Alamosa, Colo. Colorado’s San Luis Valley has some of the nation’s best solar resource. Photo/Allen Best

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

On Sept. 20, the Colorado Springs Utilities Board approved adding 150 megawatts of new solar generation, plus battery storage, by 2024. The change means 20 percent of Utilities’ energy will come from renewables. That project, coupled with two others totaling 95 megawatts, will power more than 75,000 homes. The hit to customer billings is an increase of 1 percent over 10 years, Utilities said in a release.

Meantime, Xcel Energy Colorado, serving 1.5 million electric customers in the state, completed a 600-megawatt wind farm, the Rush Creek Wind Project, covering 100,000 acres in five counties: Lincoln, Arapahoe, Elbert, Kit Carson and Cheyenne, The Denver Post reported. Xcel plans to generate most of its power from renewables by 2026.

“This can’t be the United States”: An excerpt from River of Lost Souls — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Below is an excerpt from Jonathan Thompson’s beautiful book about the people and the historic economies of the Four Corners area and the resultant water pollution, health problems, and climate effects left over from the extractive industries that flourished there. The book centers around the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 and that is the context Thompson uses to explain the area’s history. He even introduces you to his grandmother and that’s quite a story in itself. River of Lost Souls is an important book. The reader ends up smarter about dealing with folks that disregard environmental issues in the name of economic gain.

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan P. Thompson):

Jonathan’s Note: Among the many things in the path of Florence, the tropical storm that battered North Carolina in September, were coal ash dumps. A lot of folks don’t know what those are, or why they are cause for concern. So I’m running this long excerpt from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster to shine some light on the issue of coal combustion waste.

To drive west out of Farmington is to travel through the borderland, where the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation melds with the non-Indian world. It’s a cultural and economic mishmash. Here’s a sex store next to a plumbing supply shop across the highway from a sprawling automobile burial ground not far from a Mennonite church. Justalaundry, Zia Liquors, Family Dollar, and numerous little booths or shacks where Diné sell kneel down bread or tamales or piñon nuts to passersby. And the “quick cash” joints that have sprouted like weeds in Gallup, Farmington, and other reservation border towns, preying on the poor, the desperate, and the “unbanked” with their thousand-percent interest loans. It’s just an update of the exploitative pawn shops of yore. “It’s a border town, and tribes around it constitute economic colonies,” John Redhouse, who grew up in Farmington, told me, adding that things haven’t improved that much since the 1970s.

Trailers perched on cinder blocks, tires on a roof. An old man in a recliner, sipping a tumbler of warm whiskey, selling his junk. Down in the lush Jewett Valley a sign pointing to an old metal building reads: “RABBITS GOATS CHICKS AVON AT DOUBLEWIDE.” Just up the road, the Original Sweetmeat Inc., aka “Mutton Lover’s Heaven,” a slaughterhouse and butcher shop, sits alongside the highway and the Shumway Arroyo.

A few miles north looms the San Juan Generating Station, built in 1973 in the arroyo. Eight miles away, on the Navajo side of the river, sits the older, larger Four Corners Power Plant.

The Original Sweetmeats is owned and run by Raymond “Squeak” Hunt, a tall, gruff man prone to muttering inscrutable aphorisms, who deals mostly with mutton, or sheep (as opposed to lamb), and sells to a mostly Diné clientele. “You may think I’m one hard, mean son-of-a-bitch,” Hunt told me when I first met him in 2002, as he unloaded a trailer full of sheep, bound for slaughter. “But it hurts me every time I kill one of these animals.”

I wasn’t there for the sheep, though. I was visiting because Hunt is surely the most stubborn—if unlikely—thorn in the corporate side of Public Service Company of New Mexico, the operators of San Juan Generating Station and the supplier of electricity to the entire state. That doesn’t make him unique; hundreds of activists have agitated against the air pollution from the two coal plants’ smokestacks over the decades. But Hunt was one of the most ferocious fighters against a rarely noticed form of pollution spilling out of the plants: the slag, ash, and dust left over from burning coal, otherwise known as coal combustion waste.

Hunt has lived here, along the banks of the Shumway Arroyo, for much of his life. Prior to 1973 the upper reaches of the Shumway contained water only after rains. Once the arroyo reaches the San Juan River Valley near Hunt’s place, however, irrigation return and groundwater resulted in the arroyo’s transformation to a perennial stream. The stream was a source for both domestic and livestock water for early settlers of the Jewett Valley, including Hunt’s family.

When construction began on the large, mine-mouth, coal-burning power plant a few miles upstream alongside the arroyo, the arroyo changed. Coal power plants require vast amounts of water to function, and when SJGS went on-line in 1973, the plant dumped its wastewater and just about everything else into the Shumway. From that time on, the previously dry arroyo became a perennial stream from the plant to the river. Downstream users in Waterflow, in the meantime, continued to drink out of wells fed by the arroyo’s flows and their livestock kept drinking straight out of the stream.

Like the slightly larger Four Corners Power Plant, which was constructed a decade earlier, San Juan Generating Station’s smokestacks were subject to virtually no regulation. During its first decades of operation, Four Corners became notorious for the black plume of smoke—hundreds of tons of sulfur dioxide and fly ash each day—that it sent into the region’s previously crystal clear skies. One account says that one plant produced more smog than New York City. With the addition of SJGS, the air quality in the region deteriorated, vistas were cut short by smog, and the one thing that remained visible from far away were the plumes emitted by the stacks.

It did not take long for citizen groups from around the region to protest the deterioration in the quality of their air. General citizen pressure and lawsuits forced the 1977 Clean Air Act to include a policy preventing the degradation of air quality. In 1978, San Juan Generating Station installed controls to reduce smokestack emissions and Four Corners followed in 1980. Air pollution from the plants was significantly reduced. Other pollution was not.

When coal is burned the carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. But coal is a lot more than just carbon. It’s got sulfur in it, which becomes sulfur dioxide during combustion, the main cause of acid rain. It contains a host of other elements, most notably arsenic, mercury, and selenium, some of which waft from the stack as smoke and particulates. Most end up as solid waste of one form or another. Each year, power plants in the United States collectively kick out enough of this stuff to fill a train of coal cars stretching from Manhattan to Los Angeles and back three times. It’s stored in lagoons next to power plants, buried in old coal mines, and sometimes piled up in the open. It is the largest waste stream of most power plants, and a study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people exposed to it had a much higher than average risk of getting cancer.

“Anybody who knows anything about coal ash chemistry knows that when you burn coal, what you have leftover is dramatically different from what you had originally,” Jeff Stant, a geologist with the Clean Air Task Force, told me back in 2002. Coal ash can contain seventeen metals. Some, like mercury or arsenic, are already toxic, others become more so during combustion.

Because every pound of pollution kept out of the air ends up in the solid waste stream, the pollution control methods in the stacks only made the problem on the ground worse. The solid waste consists of fine and dusty fly ash; a gravelly, gray material called bottom ash; and the relatively benign glassy clinkers or boiler slag. The stack scrubbers that pull sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide out of the smoke create perhaps the most malignant material, called scrubber sludge. All of that was typically piled up near the plant, where it could blow into the air, or get washed into an arroyo, or leach into the ground. In San Juan Generating Station’s case, the stuff was dumped right into or near Shumway Arroyo—an echo of the hardrock mining tailings that had been similarly dumped for decades one hundred miles upstream.

In the early 1980s, people who lived along the Shumway Arroyo and drank from wells began getting sick. Hunt suffered from muscle spasms, lost sixty pounds, and had a cornucopia of other problems. “I looked like a POW after World War II,” he said. His wife and kids got sick; his neighbors, too.

Though Hunt’s illness was never definitively traced to a specific cause, he and other activists are pretty sure some of the stuff in coal combustion waste made it into his water. Around the time Hunt got sick, researchers found extraordinarily high levels of selenium—which tends to be highly concentrated in coal combustion waste—in the Shumway Arroyo. His symptoms match those of selenium poisoning. His illness may have also come from ingesting too much lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, or sulfates, all of which are commonly concentrated in coal combustion waste.

Whatever the poison, it soon became clear that the water was tainted. Those who were sick sued the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which operates the plant; the company never admitted fault, but ultimately settled with the affected families. It also tightened up its waste disposal, becoming one of the first power plants in the nation to go to a zero discharge permit, which means it can’t release any water onto the land. After a lot of legal wrangling, Hunt settled, too.

Hunt, however, remains convinced that the power plant continues to sully the water in the arroyo. He says that water leaks from retention ponds, coal-washing, and dust-control spraying, and even if it’s clean, it picks up and remobilizes contaminants in the sediments of the arroyo, left by the dumping in the 1970s and ’80s. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, 1,400 of Hunt’s sheep, all of which had drunk from the Shumway Arroyo, got sick and died or had to be killed. Hunt blamed Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, the state’s biggest electricity provider. The utility said negligence on Hunt’s part killed the sheep, with the help of minerals occurring naturally in the arroyo and the water. The utility and Hunt have been at loggerheads for years in very public ways. On their way home from work every day, the power plant’s employees have no choice but to see a giant billboard erected by Hunt on his property, bashing both PNM and New Mexico’s environmental regulators. A smaller sign above the big billboard reads: “WAKE UP you bunch of NUTS we ALL live DOWNSTREAM.”

Hunt’s fight isn’t limited to his own situation, though. He’s also worked to shine a light on the coal combustion waste issue in general. Despite the magnitude of the waste stream, and its potentially deleterious effects on human and environmental health, coal combustion waste disposal is regulated much like normal landfills are. The EPA has for decades worked on new rules, implementing some, letting others fall by the wayside.

“I hope you have a cast-iron stomach,” said Hunt as we walked over to the little stand by the road where a Diné couple was selling, along with jewelry, bowls of extremely hot chili and kneel down bread. The lamb sandwiches inside looked good at first, but after a tour of the slaughterhouse and witnessing a sheep get stunned, decapitated, and dressed, I opted for the chili. We sat in a shady spot next to the parking lot and watched a steady stream of customers go into the butcher shop and haul out racks of lamb and mutton, chops, and something a Diné man called b’chee, little strips of meat or fat wrapped up in sheep intestines that Hunt’s wife prepared.

After eating, as the afternoon clouds moved in along with a stiff breeze, we climbed into Hunt’s truck and he drove us to the south side of the river, toward Four Corners Power Plant. We followed a dirt road skirting Morgan Lake, in the shadow of the soot-stained smokestacks of the plant. Each year about nine billion gallons of water are brought up from the San Juan River to form this reservoir, then it’s circulated through the plant to cool the massive generators and for other purposes. The hot water is discharged back into the reservoir, so Lake Morgan is warm and steamy, even in winter, making it a popular, if surreal, windsurfing and fishing spot.

On their way home from work every day, the power plant’s employees have no choice but to see a giant billboard erected by Hunt on his property, bashing both PNM and New Mexico’s environmental regulators. A smaller sign above the big billboard reads: “WAKE UP you bunch of NUTS we ALL live DOWNSTREAM.” Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

When early provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act first were being implemented in the early 1970s, the smokestacks looming over Lake Morgan kicked out more than four thousand pounds of mercury each year, along with thousands of pounds of selenium and copper and hundreds more pounds of lead, arsenic, and cadmium, not to mention sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. Thanks to federal air pollution regulations, and to activists who push the government to enforce those rules, emissions have decreased considerably over the years. Now, with only two of five units still in operation, the plant puts out about 150 pounds of mercury and 520 pounds of selenium each year, along with varying quantities of other toxic metals. Most of these pollutants are then deposited in the surrounding water, on the land, and on homes. For years, rain and snow falling on Mesa Verde National Park—its backside visible from the shores of Morgan Lake—have contained some of the highest levels of mercury in the nation, and elevated levels have even been found on Molas Pass, just south of Silverton. The mercury is then taken up by bacteria in lakes and rivers, which convert it to highly toxic methylmercury, which then enters the food chain. Mercury messes with fishes’ brains, and even at relatively low concentrations can impair bird and fish reproduction and health. It’s not so good for people, either.

We continued out into the desert toward the Chaco River and the Hogback, and as we came over a rise an incongruous scene unfolded before us: a flat-topped, uniformly shaped mesa, its dusty soil gray and smooth, with eerie-looking deep-orange water pools on its surface. Nothing was growing there. I wondered if maybe it was this that I needed a strong stomach for, not the chili.

We were looking at the Four Corners Power Plant’s dump, made up of ash impoundment piles, decant water, and evaporation ponds, containing some forty years’ worth of accumulated coal combustion waste—tens of millions of tons of it—from three of the plant’s five generators. At the time, Four Corners was burning about 8.5 million tons of coal each year, some 3.3 million tons of which were leftover as coal combustion waste, dumped both here and back into the nearby mine. A trio of unlined sludge-disposal ponds sat less than five hundred yards from the Chaco River, which empties into the San Juan River a few miles away. Two miles upstream is the Hogback Outlier, a Chacoan-era pueblo. A crescent-shaped structure known as a herradura—a piece of AWUF associated with Chacoan roads—sits atop the Hogback nearby.

Darker clouds headed our way and the wind kicked up, whipping the fine, gray ash and dust off the top of the piles and into the air, reducing visibility to thirty feet or so. When the dust cleared we saw a sign stuck into the base of one of the piles. It read: “No Trash Dumping. Walk in Beauty.”

For people who worry about coal combustion waste and the way it’s regulated, this place is Exhibit A. “My first thought when I saw this,” Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, told me, “was, this can’t be the United States.”

Like the Shumway Arroyo which runs past Hunt’s home, the Chaco River downstream from this complex of ponds and piles has contained extremely high levels of selenium, as does the groundwater beneath the ponds. When ingested, selenium can adversely affect reproduction in fish, birds, and mammals. Fish along this stretch of the San Juan River often contain elevated levels of mercury, lead, selenium, and copper. In 1992 a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist surveyed fish downstream on the San Juan River from the Four Corners Power Plant to Mexican Hat and found that a majority of them had lesions, damaged livers, deformities, or other signs of disease. While the culprit appeared to be bacteria, the particular strains need the fish to be otherwise impaired, by contaminants, for example, in order to invade.

When I returned to Hunt’s place in 2007, he gave me the same tour. Nothing had changed, but the spokesman for the plant’s operator, Arizona Public Service, assured me that they were no longer dumping their coal ash in the piles Hunt and I toured, and that the company planned to clean up the nasty piles and ponds and replace them with lined impoundments. Since then, the piles have been covered, and the old ponds removed. Dumping continues here, but under more controlled conditions. Ash is also dumped back into the nearby coal mine, which has been owned by a Navajo Nation-owned company since the end of 2013. This alleviates some of the problems associated with dumping, but doesn’t solve all of them, critics say. Chemicals can still leach into groundwater (though it’s less likely here, where it’s so arid), and unless the ash is covered, it can still blow around in the air, settling on nearby homes.

Arizona Public Service, which is owned by Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, sells electricity to nearly 1.2 million people across Arizona. The corporation raked in over $400 million in profit in 2015. At the same time, it lobbied hard to change state rules on net metering, which determine how much the utility must compensate homeowners for electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. They’ve managed to chip away at the incentives, thus discouraging people from installing their own panels and generating a bit of their own electricity.

As we drove back around the plant, seemingly to provoke the security guards, Hunt treated me to another rhetorical geode. “It’s just like asking Patty Hearst’s mother what happened…all you get is a bunch of excuses,” he said. “These are some nasty sons-a-bitches. It’s all about profit. They don’t care about anything or anyone, they just care about their profits.” As crude as the delivery might have been, it was hard to refute the concept.

When we arrived back at Original Sweetmeats, the after-work rush was on. We hung back by the truck and watched. It was late afternoon. The cottonwoods cast long shadows on the ground. “If I’m lucky, one day I’ll die of a heart attack,” Hunt said.

After a pause, he perked up to tell me about the petroglyphs that are pecked into the sandstone cliff band that runs up and down the San Juan for miles. I looked out at the valley, sliced up by the four-lane highway and the big transmission towers, and wondered why the Pueblo people would leave such a place, and I tried to imagine what the first Diné people, coming from the North, out of the cold mountains and across the parched high desert, thought when they came upon the silty river and the trees and the willows on its banks. It must have felt like home.

Up on the desert on either side of the valley, the plants chugged on, each burning twenty thousand tons of coal per day. They’ve brought jobs and industry to a once-impoverished and undeveloped place and keep the people in faraway cities cool in the unforgiving summer heat. They each send millions of dollars of property taxes and royalties to various governments. They also spew out thousands of tons of toxic waste each year. Power is not free.

An old pickup truck pulled into the parking lot, several cages holding roosters in the back. A large man tumbled out, wearing safety glasses and a dirty jumpsuit, his face spattered with some kind of black soot: a power plant employee, selling his chickens after work.

“Five dollars for the little ones,” he told a man and wife who were inspecting the birds. Then he turned to Hunt and me and told us about how he can no longer smell anything after years at the plant, and about how his friend who lived nearby had to clean his television screen daily to wipe away the buildup of fly ash.

“I won’t make it to sixty, I can guarantee that,” he said, matter-of-factly. His wife sat in the cab of the pickup, smiling and quiet.

The haze seemed to be getting thicker in the west, the sun taking on an orange glow. Under my breath, to no one in particular, I said, “Looks like it will be a nice sunset tonight.”

Want to read the rest of the book? Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.