“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.

Coal. Guns. Freedom? — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround #greenwave

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson). This article first appeared in The High Country New on Sept. 21, 2017:

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

I saw these three words on a little sticker affixed, discordantly, to the window of a car in a small Colorado town. It struck me as funny at first: Coal and guns being elevated to the status of platonic ideals or, even more loftily, the refrain of a bad country song. All it was missing was Jesus, beer and Wrangler butts. A few days later, though, as I sat on a desert promontory overlooking northwestern New Mexico, the sticker didn’t seem so funny. As the sunrise spilled across sagebrush plains and irrigated cornfields, it also illuminated a narrow band of yellow-brown clouds on the horizon.

The clouds were smog, a soup of sulfur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants emanating from the smokestacks of the coal-burning Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station, on either side of the San Juan River Valley. The people of the Four Corners have experienced that cloud in one form or another nearly every day for the past half century. Our skies have been sullied, as have our lungs; mercury wafts from these and other smokestacks and falls with rain on Mesa Verde National Park and in the clear, icy streams of the San Juan Mountains. The plants suck millions of gallons of water from the river each day for steam production and cooling, and they leave behind mountains of ash, clinkers and sludge, tainted with mercury, arsenic, selenium and other toxic material. That’s all in addition to the tens of millions of tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide the stacks release each year.

We’ve been told that this is just the price we pay for power, that this is what it costs to keep the lights on in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, that we have no choice but to live with it. To stop burning coal, or even try to mitigate the harm, we’ve been told, will put thousands of hard-working Americans out of a job, skyrocket electricity costs, and black-out our lights and computers.

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

Now, however, as many of the biggest coal plants near the end of their lives, coal-fired electricity is going the way of the steam locomotive and manual typewriter. It’s becoming clear that King Coal was a big lie, a long-standing myth. For decades, we’ve been hoodwinked by the fetishization of coal, to the detriment of us all.

Navajo Generating Station and the cloud of smog with which it blankets the region. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson via The High Country News

Coal fueled the white invasion of the West. It stoked smelters, powered locomotives and generated steam, driving mills that processed tons and tons of rock. Newcomers heated their homes and cooked with coal, thousands of them toiling in mines to keep the fires going. The coal industry rose up on those miners’ backs, reaping enormous profits that lined politicians’ pockets. These lawmakers returned the favor by keeping regulations minimal and royalties low on federal mineral reserves, and by sending in troops to murder striking miners. “Coal is the fuel of the present,” crowed the author of a 1906 US Geological Survey report, “and so far as can be seen, will continue to lead … for a long time to come.”

Yet even then, Westerners were slowly shifting away from the expensive, dirty and inconvenient fuel. The electricity that powered the mines and towns was, by and large, generated from falling water. And when the pipelined bounty of the 1920s’ natural gas boom spread from New Mexico and Texas across the West, homeowners switched en masse to gas for cooking and heating, saying goodbye to stokers, clinkers and coal’s pervasive, greasy film.

By 1950, coal provided a mere 10 percent of the West’s electricity. Natural gas generation was eating into that slice, and plans for a network of dams along the Colorado River threatened to flood the grid with even more cheap, coal-displacing hydropower. Steam locomotives went the way of the dinosaurs, driven to extinction by diesel. American coal consumption fell by 20 percent in the 1950s alone; in the West it plummeted by 40 percent.

Facing an existential crisis, the coal industry executives knew they could not compete based on the merits of their fuel. Instead, they set out to imbue it with symbolism and mythology. Coal was not just coal, the lobbyists argued. It was abundant, reliable and deserving of a seat in the pantheon of American culture, alongside cowboys, guns — and, yes, freedom. (They also managed to convince the Sierra Club that coal plants were a green alternative to river-ruining dams.)

Most of all, coal was equated with honest jobs for hard-working miners (and voters) — never mind that mechanization and efficiency had been killing off mining jobs since the early 1900s. The shift from coal to diesel and natural gas was framed not as mere consumer choice between commodities, but as an attack on some ineffable American value.

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

The industry enlisted Sen. Wayne Aspinall, a Democrat from the coal state of Colorado, to its cause, and Congress created the Office of Coal Research in 1960 “to encourage and stimulate the production of coal in the United States through research and development … and maximize the contribution of coal to the overall energy market.” Lawmakers from coal-producing counties and states ganged up on other forms of energy, taxing natural gas, for example, or requiring public institutions to heat with coal, free market be damned.

In 1952, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its “Study of Future Power Transmission for the West.” It revealed the perverse logic that prevailed at the time: Since both the population and per capita electricity use were rapidly increasing, new power plants were needed. The new power supplies would lower electricity prices, thus drawing more people and encouraging more consumption, which would then spur the building of more power plants, and so on. It was a recipe for a slow-building disaster, regardless of what fueled the power plants. Pushing coal as the main ingredient made it that much more catastrophic.

The authors of the report acknowledged that natural gas was relatively cheap and clean, easy to transport and abundant. Nevertheless, they recommended coal to power the massive fleet of new plants, because they worried that natural gas supplies might someday run short. In so doing, they signaled that the federal government, far from being “fuel neutral,” had a strong preference for coal. The mythology around coal became policy.

Starting in the mid-1960s, coal plants were built across the nation at a rapid rate, with more than 10,000 megawatts of coal-generated capacity — the equivalent of about five Four Corners power plants — added annually. Smoke-belching plants rose up from the deserts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, including several on or near the Navajo Nation, sending their juice to the air conditioners, televisions and “electrified homes” of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Monstrous draglines gouged into spare mesas, and smog settled over valleys and obscured mesa and mountain views. Each of the new plants emitted at least 10 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

The coal frenzy was not dampened by the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 — it took years to implement the law, and even longer to enforce it. In 1977, Congress strengthened the act in ways that would give cleaner-burning natural gas a leg up. But that was nullified by another law, the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act of 1978, which prohibited the use of natural gas as a primary fuel for generating electricity. It was a blatant act of market interference, in which the government chose coal over cleaner-burning natural gas. Lawmakers and lobbyists argued the law would help the U.S. achieve energy independence, but that was yet another myth. All it really did was double down on coal, thus tightening a stranglehold on the nation’s grid that would take decades to loosen.

This April, in a move that harkens back to the 1950s, Energy Secretary Rick Perry launched a review of the electrical grid, clearly looking to kill regulations and otherwise prop up the flagging coal industry. Perry presumed that reliable and “critical baseload resources,” such as coal-power, were being unfairly bullied off the grid by “regulatory burdens” and “the market-distorting effects of federal subsidies that boost one form of energy at the expense of others.” Meanwhile, long before the review was complete, the Trump administration went about killing environmental protections aimed at keeping harmful pollutants out of the air, rescinded an initiative to get corporations to pay their fair share for mining coal owned by U.S. taxpayers, and halted a study of the effects of mountaintop mining — all in the name of reliability, affordability and, of course, jobs.

It must have been a shock, therefore, when Perry’s own experts concluded in August that government interference isn’t killing coal; the free market is. “The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation,” the study’s authors wrote, essentially repeating common knowledge. Furthermore, coal’s phase-out and the increase in renewable energy on the grid have not hurt reliability or, for that matter, caused a net loss in jobs.

The findings were of little surprise to industry watchers. Coal’s foreseeable decline began when Congress repealed the Fuel Use Act in 1987. That opened the way for a huge buildup of natural gas-generated capacity. When the shale drilling revolution glutted the market with natural gas beginning in 2008, an abundance of power plants were already on hand to put it to use. The Great Recession caused electricity demand to plateau at about the same time, and the combination of factors caused wholesale electricity prices to fall. The myth of coal as the most affordable fuel perished, though its greater symbolism has proven more stubborn.

The buildup of wind and solar power further decreased overall electricity prices in relation to coal. Playing a minor role in coal’s misfortune were “a suite of environmental regulations” — from the Clean Power Plan to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard — that, Perry’s review says, “had varying degrees of effects on the cost of generation.” While these rules do affect coal more than other fuels, they aren’t “unfairly” targeting coal, as the industry and its boosters contend. Rather, they target air pollution, and coal happens to be the most polluting fuel currently in use. Other Obama-era regulations are harder on natural gas — both the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management’s methane rules targeted oil and gas production, leaving methane-venting coal mines alone.

Between 2002 and 2016, some 59,000 megawatts of coal-generated capacity were taken off the grid nationwide due to plant retirements. Salt River Project announced it would shut down its Navajo Generating Station in 2019 because the plant no longer made economic sense. Colstrip in Montana is slated to go dark in 2027, and Intermountain Power Project in Utah will close in 2025. Public Service Company of New Mexico wants to phase coal out altogether over the next 15 years, which includes shutting down San Juan Generating Station in 2022 and divesting from Four Corners Power Plant. It won’t be an easy task, since the utility currently gets 54 percent of its electricity from coal, but PNM analysts insist that more efficiency and a switch to natural gas, nuclear and renewables will cost their ratepayers less in the long-run.

Energy Information Administration

Even the coal plants that continue to run are seeing less use, and different uses, causing coal to lose ground. The Navajo Generating Station put out 30 percent less power in 2015 than it did two years earlier, for example, so if it weren’t scheduled to be shut down, it might just fade away. Two decades ago, coal plants were mainly used as a baseload power source, meaning they’d run at maximum output around the clock in order to supply the minimum demand on the grid. Yet in 2016, according to a Western Interstate Energy Board analysis, only a small handful of plants spent more than half the year in baseload operation.

So when coal plants go dark, the grid won’t lose much in the way of baseload power or the reliability it purportedly provides. “Reliability is adequate today,” Perry’s review concludes, going on to say that the loss of capacity due to retirements has been replaced, and that energy-source diversity is as high as ever. Another piece of the coal myth, smashed.

One of the few things that coal-generation has going for it is “fuel assurance.” That is, coal plants can stockpile fuel on site. Natural gas is more difficult to store, and relies on vulnerable pipeline networks. Solar and wind power are weather dependent. For the centralized coal plants of the Interior West, however, fuel assurance is offset by the fact that the plants rely on long-distance powerlines to deliver the goods, and those not only leak a lot of electricity, they can be taken out by extreme weather, wildfire, saboteurs and even squirrels.

Such practical considerations, however, do not make for powerful myth. Symbolism does. And the coal industry seethes with symbolism.

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

Perry’s grid review found that the coal industry has shed nearly 40,000 jobs over the last 15 years, but attributes those losses not only to the downturn in demand but also “increased mechanization and a shift to western coal” — the massive mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin need fewer workers than those in Appalachia to extract each ton of coal. For each job lost due to displacement of coal by natural gas, solar or wind power, another rose to take its place in an electricity generation-related industry. The Energy Department’s 2017 employment report found that coal power plants and mines employed about 160,000 people, while the wind and solar industry provided more than 475,000 jobs. Coal jobs carry far more symbolic and therefore political heft, however, since no one has yet figured out how to romanticize solar-panel installation.

When Obama was castigated for a so-called war on coal, it was not for trying to mitigate a catastrophic global habit, but for attacking miners, a powerful symbol in rural, white, American culture (85 percent of coal miners are white men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). When Trump demonstrates that he “digs coal” by rolling back regulations, he’s banking on rural nostalgia and pushing back against Obama, who for portions of white America became a symbol of urban elitism, progressivism and blackness.

Coal boosters have meanwhile seized upon this mythology for cynical ends. Trump has used it to blot out Obama’s legacy (one of his few discernible policy goals), and to solidify his base of white, male voters. The regulation rollback is good for coal’s bottom line, yet instead of using the savings to hire more workers, companies have poured the extra revenue into executive pay and bonuses. Top executives in the industry make, on average, $200,000 per year, plus millions of dollars in bonuses, while a miner toiling in dangerous conditions gets just $55,000 — if he hasn’t been replaced by a machine. The pay gap has only grown as the industry has faded, as though the folks at the top are grabbing all they can before the industry crumbles.

Meanwhile, neither Trump nor anyone else is helping out the miners themselves, the humans behind the symbolism. The Trump administration has delayed or rolled back a number of rules aimed at miner health and safety and nominated a former coal executive to head up the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Mining-related fatalities are up this year, with 20 deaths overall, 12 of which were in coal mines. And the Republicans in Congress are working hard to lower taxes on the rich — which doesn’t include most coal miners — at the expense of the rest of us, and to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which although flawed and fragile, remains the best safety net many have.

If anything, the Energy Department’s review of the grid made it clear that rescinding regulations would do nothing to save the coal industry, or the miners who make it run. It offered very few justifications for saving coal plants. But that’s unlikely to stop Trump, Perry and friends from doing what they can to prop up the coal industry. After all, they’ve got the myth behind them. As for the land, the air, the water, and the people who live near and work in the plants and mines, they’ll continue to pay the price for coal, guns, and freedom. And if those ever become the lyrics of a country song, it will be a tragic one indeed.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of a book about the Gold King Mine spill. [ed. It is interesting how the fossil fuel industry is using many of the same arguments in 2018 that were used by the extractive industries that Thompson chronicles. I guess they work.] Follow @jonnypeace

@CSUtilities extends CEO contract offer to Aram Benyamin

Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:

Board extends offer for CEO

In an open session on Sept. 17, the Utilities Board unanimously voted to extend an offer to Aram Benyamin to be the next Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Nearly 130 candidates from across the United States submitted their resumes for consideration. In June, the Utilities Board reviewed the top candidates and determined which candidates should complete advanced screening. In July, the Board reviewed the information and selected seven candidates to proceed as semifinalists.

Over the last few weeks, the full Utilities Board conducted seven semi-finalist interviews with internal and external candidates. Deliberations on who would be moving on as finalists were concluded prior to the Aug. 22 Board meeting.

As part of the process, there were opportunities for employees and the public to meet the CEO finalists and provide feedback to the Board. The Utilities Board incorporated the feedback they received from employees and the public and considered the information as they interviewed the candidates.

Aram Benyamin, P.E.
General Manager of Energy Supply
Colorado Springs Utilities

Aram Benyamin currently serves as the General Manager of the Energy Supply Department at Colorado Springs Utilities.

Prior to Colorado Springs Utilities, Mr. Benyamin was the Senior Assistant General Manager, head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s (LADWP) power system, the nation’s largest municipal utility.

At LADWP, Mr. Benyamin was responsible for 4,000 employees with an annual budget of $3.9 billion, serving more than four million residents of Los Angeles.

LADWP’s power system spans over four states. It includes 7,327 megawatts of generation capacity, 3,507 miles of high-voltage 500, 230 and 138 kV AC transmission lines, two 900 miles of 500 kV DC lines and a 465 square mile area of overhead and underground power distribution network.

Mr. Benyamin is a Professional Engineer and has a bachelor’s of science degree in engineering from California State University, Los Angeles. He also has a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from University of La Verne and a master’s degree in public of administration (MPA) from California State University, Northridge.

He has also earned a Certificate, Senior Executives in State and Local Government, Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government; Certificate, Executive Business Management Program, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Anderson School of Management; Certificate, Engineering and Technical Management, UCLA; Certificate, Business Management Program, UCLA; Certificate, Leadership for the 21st Century, UCLA; Certificate, Total Quality Management, UCLA; Certificate, Construction Management, UCLA.

Mr. Benyamin’s current and past board member and trustee affiliations include YMCA Downtown Colorado Springs Board Member, Armenian General Benevolent Union, Worldwide District Committee Board Member, Boys and Girls Scouts commissioner, troop committee member and volunteer, Trustee of Joint Safety and Training Institutes, Southern California Public Power Association board member, Large Public Power Council board member and California Municipal Utilities Association board member.

  • View Mr. Benyamin’s resume.
  • See Mr. Benyamin written responses to interview questions.
  • Read Mr. Benyamin’s video interview transcript.
  • From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

    Monday, Sept. 17, the Colorado Springs Utilities Board voted to offer the energy supply general manager, Aram Benyamin, a contract as the new CEO of the $2 billion enterprise.

    Benyamin would replace Jerry Forte, who retired in May after more than 12 years as CEO.

    He came to Utilities in 2015 from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power after he was ousted the previous year due to his close association with the electrical workers union, according to media reports. He also had supported the challenger of Eric Garcetti, who was elected as mayor.

    Benyamin tells the Independent that he will accept the offer, although details are being worked out, including the salary. Forte was paid $447,175 a year.

    Benyamin will take his cues on major policy issues from the Utilities Board but does have thoughts on power supply, water rights and other issues involving the four services offered by Utilities: water, wastewater, electricity and gas.

    He says he hopes to see more options emerge for Drake Power Plant, a downtown coal-fired plant that’s been targeted for retirement in 2035. That’s way too late, according to some residents who have pushed for an earlier decommissioning date…

    Utilities has been slower than some to embrace solar and wind, because of the price point, but Benyamin says prices are going down. “Every time we put out an RFP [request for proposals] the prices are less,” he says, adding that renewables will play a key role in replacing Drake’s generation capacity, which at present provides a quarter to a third of the city’s power.

    While sources are studied, he says the city is moving ahead with “rewiring the system” to prepare for shutting down the plant. But he predicted a new source of generation will be necessary.

    Though he acknowledged he’s not fully versed in Utilities’ water issues, he says it’s his goal to “serve the city first.”

    “Any resources we have we need to prioritize them to the need of the city today and the future growth and then decide what level of support we can give to anybody else,” he says.

    The Utilities Policy Advisory Committee earlier this year called for lowering the cost of water and wastewater service for outsiders — notably bedroom communities outside the city limits which are running lower on water or face water contamination issues.

    Benyamin also says he’s open to further studying reuse of water. “Any chance we have to recycle water or use gray water for irrigation or any other use that would take pressure off our supplies, that’s always a great idea to look into,” he says.

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Conrad Swanson):

    “My short-term vision is to take a look at the organization and kind of recalibrate the vision of what a public utility should be and how a public utility should fit into the vision of the city itself,” Benyamin said.

    Long-term goals include identifying what fuel changes Utilities will face and examining the water supply and transmission, he said.

    Benyamin said he wants to insert leadership that will boost revenues while maintaining competitive rates. He also foresees increasing renewable energy production and energy storage.

    “Renewables and storage are the trend of the future,” he said. “That’s where we’re going.”

    Technology for storage and renewable energy, such as wind and solar, are becoming more efficient and affordable, Benyamin said. Combining those two factors with improved distribution of electricity will enable Utilities to be more versatile, he said.

    The coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown is to be closed no later than 2035, but Benyamin said that date could be moved up significantly with more technology, storage and transmission options.

    Colorado Springs with the Front Range in background. Photo credit Wikipedia.

    U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell slightly in 2017 #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    From the U.S. Energy Information Administration (Laura Singer):

    U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2017 fell to 5.14 billion metric tons, 0.9% lower than their 2016 levels, and coal emissions were the primary driver behind the decline. U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions have declined in 7 of the past 10 years, and they are now 14% lower than in 2005.

    Both coal and natural gas consumption in the United States were lower in 2017 than in 2016, and as a result, coal- and natural gas-related CO2 emissions decreased 2.6% and 1.5%, respectively. Natural gas consumption has displaced coal consumption in the electric power sector in recent years, and total U.S. emissions from natural gas first surpassed emissions from coal in 2015. U.S. petroleum consumption increased in 2017, contributing to a 0.5% increase in energy-related CO2 emissions from petroleum, but this increase was offset by the decrease in coal and natural gas emissions.

    The electric power sector was the only U.S. sector in which energy-related emissions decreased in 2017, and the 4.6% decline was enough to offset increases in all other sectors. In recent years, the generation mix has shifted away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables. The shift toward natural gas from coal lowers CO2 emissions because natural gas produces fewer emissions per unit of energy consumed than coal and because natural gas generators typically use less energy than coal plants to generate each kilowatthour of electricity. Electricity generation from renewable energy technologies has increased; these technologies do not directly emit CO2 as part of their electricity generation. In EIA’s emissions data series, emissions from biomass combustion are excluded from reported energy-related emissions according to international convention.

    In addition to reduced CO2 emissions as a result of utilization of less carbon-intensive generation sources, CO2 emissions were also lower in 2017 because of lower electricity sales, which in 2017 experienced the largest drop since the economic recession in 2009. The decline in CO2 emissions in the residential and commercial sectors was largely attributable to milder weather. Cooler summers reduce electricity consumption for cooling, and warmer winters reduce electricity consumption for heating (and also reduce heating-related consumption of natural gas and petroleum). Electricity sales to the industrial sector were also lower in 2017, despite an overall increase in manufacturing output.

    Energy-related CO2 emissions trends are often related to trends in energy consumption and economic growth. Trends in energy consumption and related CO2 emissions relative to economic activity can be measured in several ways. Energy intensity is the amount of energy consumed relative to economic activity, measured in British thermal units per dollar of gross domestic product. Carbon intensity of energy consumed relates CO2 emissions to the amount of energy consumed in a year, measured in metric tons of CO2 per billion British thermal units.

    From 2005 to 2017, the U.S. economy grew by 20%, while U.S. energy consumption fell by 2%. Energy-related CO2 emissions also decreased during that time period, and as of 2017, they were 14% lower than their 2005 levels. Compared with the levels in 2005, U.S. economic growth in 2017 was 29% less carbon-intensive, and overall U.S. energy consumption was 12% less carbon-intensive.

    @wradv Statement on the @POTUS Administration’s Rollback of the Clean Power Plan #ActOnClimate

    From Western Resource Advocates:

    Western Resource Advocates President Jon Goldin-Dubois released the following statement today on the Trump administration’s proposal to gut the Clean Power Plan by dismantling the federal government’s framework for cutting greenhouse gas pollution.

    “The Trump administration is backing away from action on climate change as communities across the West struggle through years of record drought and a summer choked with wildfire smoke – both fueled by global warming. We need leadership on climate change at the federal level. Today’s action is further abdication of the responsibility to act on climate to protect our health, livelihoods, and future generations. Fortunately, smart utilities in the West and nationwide are moving in the opposite direction, motivated by market forces and public demand for clean energy. We urge the administration to take its head out of the sand, listen to Westerners, consumers, and the marketplace, and honor its responsibility to cut carbon emissions.”

    Ireland votes to divest from fossil fuels #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    By Jeff Schmaltz – NASA Earth Observatory, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14627545

    From The Guardian (Damian Carrington):

    Bill passed by parliament means more than €300m shares in coal, oil, peat and gas will be sold ‘as soon as practicable’

    The Republic of Ireland will become the world’s first country to sell off its investments in fossil fuel companies, after a bill was passed with all-party support in the lower house of parliament.

    The state’s €8bn national investment fund will be required to sell all investments in coal, oil, gas and peat “as soon as is practicable”, which is expected to mean within five years. Norway’s huge $1tn sovereign wealth fund has only partially divested from fossil fuels, targeting some coal companies, and is still considering its oil and gas holdings.

    The fossil fuel divestment movement has grown rapidly and trillions of dollars of investment funds have been divested, including large pension funds and insurers, cities such as New York, churches and universities.

    Supporters of divestment say existing fossil fuel resources are already far greater than can be burned without causing catastrophic climate change and that exploring and producing more fossil fuels is therefore morally wrong and economically risky… [ed. emphasis mine]

    The Irish fossil fuel divestment bill was passed in the lower house of parliament on Thursday and it is expected to pass rapidly through the upper house, meaning it could become law before the end of the year. The Irish state investment fund holds more than €300m in fossil fuel investments in 150 companies.

    “The [divestment] movement is highlighting the need to stop investing in the expansion of a global industry which must be brought into managed decline if catastrophic climate change is to be averted,” said Thomas Pringle, the independent member of parliament who introduced the bill. “Ireland by divesting is sending a clear message that the Irish public and the international community are ready to think and act beyond narrow short term vested interests.”

    Éamonn Meehan, executive director of international development charity Trócaire, said: “Today the Oireachtas [Irish parliament] has sent a powerful signal to the international community about the need to speed up the phase-out of fossil fuels.”


    The bill defines a fossil fuel company as a company that derives 20% or more of its revenue from exploration, extraction or refinement of fossil fuels. The bill also allows investment in Irish fossil fuel companies if this funds their move away from fossil fuels.

    Gerry Liston at Global Legal Action Network, who drafted the bill, said: “Governments will not meet their obligations under the Paris agreement on climate change if they continue to financially sustain the fossil fuel industry. Countries the world over must now urgently follow Ireland’s lead and divest from fossil fuels.”

    @CAPArizona chooses #solar over #coal

    From The High Country News (Jessica Kutz):

    In one of the latest bids to save the Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest coal-burning power plant, the Department of Interior has stepped in to try and stave off its closure. Last week, Timothy Petty, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, sent a letter to the Central Arizona Project, a regional water utility, pressuring it to continue purchasing electricity from the power plant, which is slated to close in 2019.

    In the past, the water project, which is operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, has purchased most of its power from the generating station. However, with the impending closure of the plant, the utility began looking to new and cheaper energy sources, including renewables like solar. On Thursday, despite the Interior Department’s recommendation, CAP’s board voted to sign a 20-year power purchase agreement with a solar company.

    Navajo Generating Station. Photo credit: Wolfgang Moroder.

    Those working to save the plant fear that CAP’s decision to move forward with alternative suppliers will prevent any potential investors from coming forward to buy the generating station. However, the utility has said it will still consider purchasing electricity from the power plant if a new owner can “provide competitively priced power,” CAP spokeswoman DeEtte Person said in an email.

    The battle to keep the coal-fired power plant running is emblematic of a larger national effort to keep coal in operation, despite market forces that favor natural gas. As part of his “energy dominance” mandate, President Donald Trump’s administration has tried to bolster the country’s coal production, moving to lift regulatory burdens to increase the profitability of the energy source. Time and again those efforts have proven inadequate to save the struggling industry.

    Several attempts have already been made in the case of the Navajo Generating Station. In April, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that would provide a multi-million dollar tax break for coal in Arizona, as a way to attract a potential buyer for the generating station. A few weeks ago, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., revealed a draft bill that would require the operator of CAP to purchase as “much of its total power requirements as possible” from the station until the utility has paid off its $1.1 billion debt. In addition to that mandate, the bill would temporarily exempt any potential new owner of the plant from having to conduct a National Environmental Policy Act review, and would waive Clean Air Act requirements, according to AZ Central.

    If no buyer comes forward — a Chicago-based company has said it might make an offer — the plant will close in December 2019. The generating station supplies over 700 jobs, 90 percent of which are held by citizens of the Navajo Nation. In a statement, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye asked for more time to find a buyer before utilities like the CAP pursue alternatives. “We should continue to work to find solutions to keep the plant operating while supporting both the Navajo economy and families,” he said. Both the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation also receive royalties from coal production, with 85 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s annual budget coming from the generating station.

    In the same week that the Interior Department put pressure on the Arizona utility to buy power from the generating station, a leaked White House draft memo directed the Department of Energy to save struggling coal and nuclear plants across the country. The memo described plans to order grid operators to buy energy from coal and nuclear plants for at least two years, allegedly to boost the resilience of the power grid, according to a statement from the White House.

    Despite a coal-friendly administration, Thursday’s vote for solar by the CAP board suggests that coal is no longer considered an economically viable option for future energy generation. Addressing representatives from both the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation at Thursday’s board meeting, CAP’s Board President Lisa Atkins stated that the utility was “not at war with coal.” Rather, it was seeking a “long-term, cost-effective, reliable and diverse power portfolio.” Coal, it would appear, no longer has a prime spot in that energy mix.

    Jessica Kutz is an editorial intern at High Country News.

    This article was first published June 8, 2018 on The High Country News.