Superlatives are an understatement on the Colorado Plateau.
Home to Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, and more, the region is the American West’s defining collision of contrasts pushed to some of the most beautiful extremes. The land, the water, the people, the air–they’re a mélange of unlikely proportions that over time (lots of time) have come together to create one of the most iconically paradoxical joinders of culture and geology, water and desert, even life and death.
(just check out this Flickr album of bryandkeith’s bike tour of the Colorado Plateau, wonderful point of view and awesome photography!)
Yet even in this landscape marked by stark contrasts, there’s some things that seem out of place.
Not the natural seams of coal that streak buttes with black stripes of a carboniferous past, but the mines and the power plants concentrated in the region that have turned this past into a present-day environmental disaster.
By our count, the Colorado Plateau, which spans five states and encompasses most of the Colorado River watershed, supports 12 coal-fired power plants that collectively account for 44% of all coal-fired electricity generated in the Western United States (check out our map below, as well as another one like it on our Flickr site). Unlike many plants in the nation that get their coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, these 12 are fueled entirely by mines on the Plateau.
Collectively, these plants take a huge toll on the region’s air, water, and land. And this where another set of less appealing superlatives come in.
Like largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River, a distinction that belongs to the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona. At 2,400 megawatts, the power plant is capable of providing energy to more than 1.5 million households annually.
Or largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions, a byproduct of coal combustion that forms smog and haze, a distinction that belongs to the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico. In 2011, the plant released more than 37,500 tons, as much as 1.96 million cars.
Or three of the top 25 largest sources of carbon dioxide in the United States–the Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners Power Plant, and Jim Bridger Station in Wyoming (13th, 24th, and 14th, respectively).
To that end, the largest source of carbon dioxide in every state in the region (with the exception of Utah) is located on the Plateau: Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant, Colorado’s Craig Generating Station, and Wyoming’s Jim Bridger Station (the Hunter Power Plant in Utah is the second largest in the State).
But even more distressing is the fact that these plants collectively report more than 20.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals released annually into the air and water, and on the land. To put that into perspective, that’s almost as much as was released in the entire State of Colorado in 2010 (23 million tons reported to EPA).
In other words, these 12 power plants spew almost as much toxic pollution as an entire state. These toxic releases include more than 1,800 pounds of mercury emitted into the air from the plant’s smokestacks.
Perhaps it’s no wonder the Colorado Plateau has some of the highest concentrations of mercury in the West. Studies in Mesa Verde National Park, an icon of the region’s rich pre-Puebloan history, have even confirmed the link between the region’s power plants and mercury contamination.
Check out our detailed chart of toxic releases for every one of these coal-fired power plants.
Not surprisingly, haze and smog are becoming major concerns. Air monitors throughout the region have reported dozens of exceedances of federal limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of urban smog. In an area defined and treasured because of its remoteness, it’s clear vistas, and it’s lack of urbanity, that’s a big problem.
And while power plants aren’t the only source of pollution in the region, it’s becoming all too clear that the key to solving these problems is to tackle coal on the Colorado Plateau.
This imperative is especially urgent given there are still looming plans to expand the region’s coal footprint. The proposed Desert Rock power plant in New Mexico is still on the table and there’s been a recent surge in Obama Administration support for expanding coal development on Navajo lands. And Colorado has at least three new coal mine proposals developing, Oak Mesa, Red Cliff, and Sage Creek.
The list, unfortunately, is expanding.
Certainly, the Colorado Plateau is defined by its contrasts, but there’s been a certain harmony in all this. The irony with coal is that is stands to overshadow even this region’s rich contradictions, especially as global warming makes this land ever drier, hotter, even dustier.
For anyone who loves the American West, there should be no question that there needs to be a move away from coal on the Colorado Plateau.
That may be the biggest understatement of them all.