The Salt River Project has decided to drop a controversial coal mine project in New Mexico that had raised the ire of environmentalists and the Zuni and other Indian tribes.
SRP had proposed to develop the $100 million Fence Lake Coal Mine in western New Mexico to fuel the Coronado Generating Station in St. Johns, which supplies electricity to SRP customers in the East Valley.
The project was strongly opposed by Indian tribes who feared the mining operation would take water from an underground aquifer that could drain the nearby Zuni Salt Lake, a sacred site to the tribe.
Other tribes and environmental groups joined the Zunis in opposing the project, which drew international attention.
SRP had been planning to use the Fence Lake coal deposit, which is located about 43 miles east of St. Johns, since 1981 and had received federal and state environmental permits to proceed with the project. But on Monday, the SRP board decided to negotiate a contract to supply coal to the Coronado plant from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said the project received two “very competitive” bids to supply the plant from the coal-rich Wyoming region beginning in 2006.
He said the economic factor was the major reason for the decision, not tribal opposition, although he added “it clearly didn’t help us . . .”
SRP officials were surprised they received such low bids when they sought alternatives for supplying the power plant, Harelson said. “We received four bids, and two were very competitive,” he said. “That is what caused us to begin a serious investigation into that option.”
The Coronado plant runs off coal from another mine in New Mexico, which is expected to be depleted in 2006. SRP will relinquish the permits and leases that it received from the federal and New Mexico state governments to operate the Fence Lake mine, Harelson said. As a result, the project is not likely to be revived in the future, he said.
“We would have to go through that process all over again,” he said.
The new coal contracts will have a favorable impact on SRP’s balance sheet because the power company will avoid substantial new debt that development of the mine would have caused. The Wyoming coal also has a lower sulfur content, which will help SRP meet future Clean Air Act requirements under consideration by Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency, Harelson said.
“We faced the possibility of having to provide new environmental controls to the plant if we used New Mexico coal,” he said. “Wyoming coal will likely avoid that cost.”
The news was welcomed by Cal Seciwa, a Tempe resident and SRP customer and a member of the Zuni tribe, who helped to organize the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition to oppose the mine. “I’m glad SRP came to this decision, whatever reasoning they employed,” Seciwa said, adding that the efforts of the tribe and the coalition appear to have paid off. “Their decision was probably based mostly on (economics), but the whole efforts on the human side may have started to have an influence.”
The coalition maintained that the mining operation could have lowered the level of the shallow Zuni Salt Lake, degrading the local environment and wiping out tribal heritage and tradition. The Zunis use salts from the lake for their rituals, and the lake, which is located at 10 miles from the proposed mine site, also is a prayer and ceremonial site for tribes in New Mexico and Arizona. At a protest rally last October in Papago Park, Zuni Tribal Council member Dan Simplicio said the mine project amounted to “cultural genocide.”
Harelson said hydrologists concluded that water used at the mine, which would have been used primarily for dust control, would not have harmed the lake.