Where There’s Smoke, There’s Coal Ash — and a Solar Solution

Published in Indian Country Today in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Muddy River on the Moapa Paiute reservation, north of Las Vegas, Nevada 

At the August 7 National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) called Nevada Energy’s Reid Gardner Power Station a “dirty relic” and called for its closure. The coal-burning electric plant, some 50 miles north of the city, borders the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians’ reservation, producing what they describe as immense environmental pressures and chronic illnesses.

The tribe has not only vociferously criticized the plant but also has found what members see as a better way—one Tribal Chairman William Anderson says is in tune with nature. In June the Interior Department gave the Moapa Paiutes fast-tracked approval to build the first-ever utility-scale solar-energy project on tribal lands—which seems especially suitable in this region of year-round scorching sun. The 350-megawatt plant, to be built on Moapa Paiute trust land, should generate enough power for 100,000 homes, according to the agency, which says the project will mean lease income for the tribe, as well as new jobs.

“We should have about 400 jobs at peak construction and 15 to 20 permanent jobs—real career jobs tribal members can look forward to,” says Anderson. “Our energy customers will likely be in California, where people have an interest in renewable-energy sources.”

The environmental impact study went smoothly, he says, and construction will occur over the next few years in several stages, one of the first being creation of a preserve for an endangered species, the desert tortoise. And the tribe already has a second solar-energy plant in the works. “We’re right by an energy corridor, with many above- and below-ground lines for electricity, natural gas, fiber optics, and more easily accessible,” Anderson says. “Connecting is much less expensive than if we were farther away.”

Cottonwood under stress
While the Moapa Paiutes get their solar project underway, they continue to suffer the deleterious effects of the coal plant: a disproportionately high rate of respiratory illnesses—and worse—among tribal members. “Every home has someone—or even everyone—using a breathing apparatus or inhaler,” Anderson says. “We see frequent deaths, the most recent being someone in the home closest to the plant.” 

Several local television and newspaper stories—as well as the video An Ill Wind: The secret threat of coal ash, on the tribal website, www.moapa.com — have reported that the power station dumps toxin-laden coal ash, a byproduct of combustion, into landfills just a few hundred yards from the reservation. On windy days, coal-ash dust from the plant billows over the reservation, with clouds so thick that you can see and taste them, tribal members say. On those days, residents don’t dare let their children play outside. That apparently offers limited protection, though, as the dust seeps into homes, schools and cars.

The tribe is working with the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Greenpeace to get the word out about its situation, Anderson says. In April, Moapa Paiute tribal members undertook a Cultural Healing Walk, marching 50 miles to Las Vegas in three days to protest the plant. Marchers arrived on Earth Day, where they were joined by members of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

In an e-mail, NV Energy spokesperson Jennifer Schuricht wrote, “NV Energy will continue its commitment to operate the Reid Gardner Generating Station in an environmentally responsible manner, in compliance with all federal and state laws, and in the best interests of its customers.” She also provided company figures showing that in 2011 alone, the plant produced 89,355 tons of coal ash, most of which was put in landfills.

At the August energy summit, Reid was unequivocal: “The soot—and the dangerous chemicals inside it—is literally killing the Paiutes. It’s no secret [that] coal plants kill. Each year more than 24,000 deaths are attributed to emissions from coal-fired power plants in the United States alone.”

Moapa reservation view
Concerns of that sort didn’t stop the Southern Nevada Health District’s recent approval of an expansion of the Reid Gardner landfill, with new waste deposits to go on a mesa top. “At a health district meeting on the issue, we said it was so likely to blow over us from there and so detrimental to the health of our people,” says Anderson.

Tribal member Calvin Meyers told the health officials that the expansion would worsen an already intolerable situation. “I cannot practice my religion anymore, I cannot eat my natural foods that we gather, I cannot use the skins anymore of the rabbits that we use for clothing, I cannot use the willows for housing … they’re all contaminated,” he said. “It’s not the will of the Paiutes to stop something. It’s our will that we survive.”

After multiple attendees at a 2010 health-district public hearing asked for a study of the existing landfill’s health impact on several area communities, including the reservation, the officials objected, noting that many agencies might have to be involved in such research. A representative from Sierra Club protested, saying that the results of existing studies are applicable to the Moapa area and its population.

Such studies can be found on the EPA website, www.epa.gov, simply by searching for “coal fired” or “coal ash.” The agency has recently proposed to regulate coal ash for the first time “to address the risks from the disposal of the wastes generated by electric utilities and independent power producers.” Coal ash is currently an exempt waste, despite its dangers. The proposal was inspired by what the agency calls a “tragic” coal-ash spill in Tennessee that affected land and rivers.

Nevertheless, the health board signed off on the new coal-ash landfill at the end of the October 2010 meeting. “It was like them saying they don’t care about us,” says Anderson. “They think we’re nothing, but our people and culture were here long before they were.”

But now there are bright spots for the Moapa Paiute, the solar project being one of them. In addition, on August 13 the agency finalized a rule that would reduce NOx emissions at the plant by 4,000 tons per year in order to control regional haze. “This action will improve visibility at five national parks and wilderness areas, including the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Zion National Parks,” said EPA spokesperson Margot Perez-Sullivan, emphasizing that the rule addresses regional haze only.

The solar project is widely seen as a turning point for the community at Moapa. “This is a great day for the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, and for Indian country as a whole,” said Donald “Del” Laverdure, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, about approval of the 350-megawatt plant. “As our nation’s energy portfolio continues to grow, it is important that tribal communities have the opportunity to harness the energy of the wind and sun [to] power our homes, businesses and economies.”

“This is so huge. A 320-member band of Paiutes did this, and it’s being recognized globally,” said Anderson. “We’ve got momentum going. We’re standing up and taking care of our people.”

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

Popular Posts

Dancing from the Heart: A Rehearsal at Zuni Pueblo

Create a Medicine-Wheel Garden

That’s entertainment!—Ohio Native leader decries show-biz powwows, new Ohio “tribes”