I-Team: Paiute Tribe Partners With Environmentalists to Close Power Plant

MOAPA, Nev. -- Half of all the electricity produced in North America is from coal, and about a third of all the power consumed in the Las Vegas Valley comes from one coal-fired plant north of town.

Across the country, environmentalists are trying to shut down coal plants because of pollution concerns, and they now have an ally -- the Moapa Paiute Band, which has been living in the shadow of a coal plant for nearly 50 years.

If you've driven north past Moapa, you've probably seen the Reid Gardner Power Plant. At one time, it was labeled the dirtiest coal plant in the nation. NV Energy and its customers have paid a bundle to clean it up, but it's still a mess, critics say, and the people who know that best are those who live next door.

"At times it's so bad, I step out and you can smell it. I'll run around and shut all the windows. I'll even make phone calls to the neighbors, you know, 'Get your kids in.' It's really nasty," said Moapa Paiute member Vernon Lee.

Petition to close the Reid Gardner Plant

Sometimes, the fumes or gases that roll over the Moapa Reservation are invisible, detectable only by their gag-inducing odor. Much of the time though, Lee and his neighbors can see it coming. Frequent winds stir up clouds of gritty dust from what are now mountains of buried coal ash.

"We are getting exposed to who knows what -- all the ash stuff on the hill. They put a lot of asbestos up there, too," said Lee.

"In my era, we were all healthy people. We didn't have the asthma, thyroid problems, cancer, diabetes, but we have that on our reservation. It's so major now," said Aletha Tom who runs the Moapa school house.

When Aletha Tom sees the dust cloud heading toward the community school, she hustles the children inside to minimize their exposure. It is hard to find anyone who has not experienced respiratory problems.

"The dust would come right in my house and we just have that stuff and it really stinks and make me sick. I'd start coughing like we couldn't breathe," said Juanita Kinlichinie.

"There are four people in one household with asthma. Across the street are two people. Across the street in the other direction are three kids and they are all on inhalers," said tribal air quality officer Vicky Simmons.

"My cousin, he has respiratory problems or my uncle has lung problems or my other cousin, he has heart problems, too, and it's really hard to say that's just how you take care of your body," said tribal chairman William Anderson.

Anderson, like many in Moapa, suspects the Paiutes made a deal with the devil when they welcomed the Reid Gardner Plant into their front yard. The Moapa Reservation was created in the 1870's on a piece of harsh land. Two million acres were cut down to 1,000 and a few hundred members have managed to scratch out an existence, but it has been tough. Even into the 1960's, their homes had no running water or electricity.

"My mother and their family, they had what nowadays would be considered a shack, but it was home to them," said Anderson.

In the mid-60's, Nevada Power came calling. It built Reid Gardner, which has since been expanded several times and now has four units, consuming hundreds of thousands of tons of coal each year. By 2007, Reid Gardner was listed as the dirtiest coal plant in the nation because of the noxious gases which poured out of the stacks and into the sky. In 2008, it was ordered by the government to spend $90 million to cut down the release of pollution.

"You can think of them as giant vacuum cleaner bags that remove 99 percent of the solids that are in the exhaust stream," said Starla Lacey with NV Energy's environmental program.

Of course, the change was not done out of the goodness of NV Energy's heart. The company was told by the government to clean up the plant.

"We have been working cooperatively with NDEP to put these controls on that not only allow this plant to be compliant, but positioned to meet upcoming air quality standards," said Lacey.

But not always. As recently as last summer, the plant exceeded levels for sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. The company's efforts to cut down what goes into the air also means that more solid waste goes into the ground. Thousands of tons of coal ash are produced at the plant every year. The ash gets treated in ponds or buried in a landfill that covers more than 500 acres.

Despite NV Energy's efforts to control the dust, mountains of buried ash are the source of the clouds which now blow into the reservation. Tribal leaders say more than half of the residents have ongoing health issues, most often respiratory problems. The tribe has asked the health district to find out if they are being poisoned and the district told them there aren't enough of them to justify a study.

"It's just how it is. We are nobody. We are a small people and whatever we say don't matter. It just don't matter," said Lee.

The Paiutes had hoped this would be the year that Reid Gardner finally started to shut down because, at one point, that was NV Energy's plan. The company has chosen instead to keep the plant humming along, though that meant it needed approval to expand the massive landfill of coal ash.

"We care very much about our neighbors. And if you look at where we've come and what we've done, we're working to continually improve it," said Lacey.

In part because of tougher pollution standards, and in part because of its own economic self interest, NV Energy has poured vast resources into upgrading the plant. In the 60's when the plant opened, there was no requirement that its evaporation ponds be lined or routinely aerated.

The company is doing long-term remediation work on the older ponds and built the newest pond two miles away from the reservation, so that any strong odors are undetectable by residents.

"I would say we've got it under control. We certainly have done a lot of research and study. No one wants to live next to something that smells. We are very cognizant of that and want to be a good neighbor," said Lacey.

The power produced at the plant is reliable and based on a plentiful energy source -- coal -- but has it been worth the hundreds of millions spent to improve the place? Ask the Moapa band and the answer is probably no.

"The people from corporate, they don't live out here," said Anderson.

Anderson says one reason his people don't trust NV Energy is a lack of jobs. When the plant first opened and the power company needed the tribe's approval to build a pipeline, an extremely vague contract was drafted promising jobs to tribal members. The agreement only obligates the company to "try" to find spots for Paiutes. Some have worked at the plant over the years, yet today, no one from the reservation is employed by NV Energy.

"We apply for a lot of jobs down there but they deny us, and all that. Too high class to hire a bunch of Indians, you know," said Paiute elder Elliot Bushead. "They don't hire no Indians."

The Paiutes say they get all of the bad and none of the good from having a power plant next door. They don't even get any of the electricity.

"I think it is absolutely environmental racism. Communities of color are always targeted for these kinds of projects," said Vinny Spotleson with the Sierra Club. "There's a reason it's not in Summerlin or Green Valley and it's in Moapa."

"It's an old dinosaur. Coal is dirty, it's always going to be dirty. We need to do things better here in southern Nevada," said Jane Feldman with the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club makes no secret of its intentions. It wants Reid Gardner closed and then cleaned up. The same battle is underway all across the country -- environmentalists trying to force a faster transition from coal to renewable energy.

The Sierra Club formed an alliance with the Moapa Paiutes and the two are holding Reid Gardner's feet to the fire in court and other forums. What's happened to the Paiutes is a graphic example of the true costs of coal, the Sierra Club argues. Putting huge sums into retrofitting this plant is like spending big money to fix a clunker car, they say. It's expensive and it delays the inevitable.

"The utility gets to pass it along so all of us pay for it. The Moapa Indians pay for it in their health. We pay for it in regional haze and pollution," said Feldman. "The cycle has got to stop."

The most compelling argument might be water. Reid Gardner consumes close to 3 billion gallons of water per year. But the potential impact of the plant is much greater if you consider all the dangerous substances that leach into groundwater from hundreds of acres of coal ash and from the unlined ponds. Of the 10 monitoring wells around the plant, three are bone dry. The other seven show contamination at significant levels for heavy metals various toxic substances.

State officials admit the landfill has been contaminating groundwater since the late 90's.

"So, NV Energy is drilling more wells and trying to say the pollution in the groundwater under their landfill isn't from their landfill. It's crazy. It's ridiculous," said Spotleson.

Paiute children used to swim and fish in the Muddy River, but not anymore. They don't know what's in it.

The Sierra Club's scientific consultants showed official test results to the health district, hoping the evidence of contamination would convince the district to deny approval for the expansion of the landfill. District officials didn't even visit the site before approving a 35 year extension.

The Public Utilities Commission recently toured the plant. For days in advance, bulldozers tidied up the coal ash piles. Vernon Lee worked at the plant years ago and says its nothing new.

"If the EPA was coming, we knew two weeks in advance. Everybody would go out there and clean up the mess, which it usually was a mess," he said.

NV Energy says that while the plant has challenges, it would be a mistake to shut it down.

"Coal still provides half the power to North America, so you can't shut down coal plants overnight. I have said this on many occasions. We have a coal plant, and we know that. We want to make it the very best coal plant it can be," said Lacey. 

If Reid Gardner shut down, chances are your electric bills would go up,  though NV Energy says they cannot estimate the amount of the increase.

The Sierra Club and the Paiutes have not had much luck in convincing various government regulators to take a harder look at the plant, but they are now ready to do battle in court. The outcome in Nevada could have a lot to do with how this plays out all across the country.

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